Spring Training // The sunburnt, the migratory, the die-hard, the young, the old

Spring training has always seemed to me this great joining of the young and the old—you have the most elderly factions of each fanbase toddling their way out of retirement condos in Florida and Arizona, wearing sun bonnets and thick shades, lightweight track-suit pants in radiant 80-degree heat. Then you have their grandkids, visiting for spring break, half-listening to stories about Mickey Mantle, Roberto Clemente or another player whose name they likely don’t recognize, waiting to get back into some air-conditioned sofa sanctuary, March Madness on the TV.

There’s a tight bond formed at these games, across a normally hard-to-relate age gap that gets fused together in hot plastic seats for five to eight innings, depending on grandpa and grandma’s heat endurance—a collaboration of sunblock application, popsicle consumption, and failed attempts at blending in with the migratory die-hards chattering on all sides, chiming in about AA-level prospects, playoff odds and offseason injuries.

On the field too, there’s an out-with-the-old, in-with-the-hyped-up-prospect-of-the-day feeling around the ballpark, that chucks last season’s disappointments behind in some imaginary gutter, with youth, energy and optimism (delusion) put up on a pedestal in its place.

As a kid, I remember seeing Jimmy Rollins come up with the Phillies, along with Ryan Howard and Shane Victorino later on, making it obvious with every at-bat that they’d soon become stars. Then Jacoby Ellsbury with the Red Sox, more notably Joey Votto with the Reds, and probably many others whose promising play down in Clearwater in March never produced the type of major-league name I’d go on to remember.

I remember seeing more vintage jerseys per capita there than anywhere else. Dozens of Mike Schmidts and Jim Bunnings, a few Morandinis, Schillings and Kruks, too. I even got to meet Fergie Jenkins, handing out pre-signed postcards depicting his Hall of Fame plaque, with the Cubs hat nestled atop his stylish 1970’s afro. (Handing out for $20 a pop, I should say).

When I think of the preseason routines in other sports, the more I realize the special strangeness of baseball’s, with its own annual ecosystem that reassembles on cue every March, then departs into a sea of Opening Day buzz.

Think of the NBA: does anyone, even the biggest fans, have any single memory of preseason basketball? I seem to think one of the Derrick Rose injuries happened then, but at this point I’ve mixed them all up.

NFL training camp is admittedly huge, with the reality-TV success of HBO’s “Hard Knocks” series, and probably the single best geography lesson and advertisement for places like Bourbonnais, IL, Flowery Branch, GA, and Berea, OH. But my memories of NFL preseason, mostly hazy, keep recalling summer-long player union disputes, Terrell Owens beefing with Donovan McNabb, tired debates about league profit vs. player injuries and whether preseason games should even take place at all.

To be fair, the NFL games are easily the best exhibition product of the three, but football preseason exists almost completely in the shadow of the nearing “Week 1” and the first month of a 16-game season that can spell complete failure for a team’s chances even before October arrives. With baseball, that pressure seems subdued, with players knowing first week records hardly matter, that chilly-weather run production will hardly resemble that of mid-July, and that the 162-game grind ahead of them is a test of patience and not a pressure-filled showcase of power and strength.

You get people down in Spring Training towns still talking about old teams, like an ancient storm leaving high-water marks all across town: The great Babe Ruth once hit a ball 611 feet from this intersection // Wade Boggs drank such-and-such absurd amount of beers in this old St. Pete pub // The entire Dodgers roster spent the night at this motel back in ’56 // Casey Stengel tossed a grapefruit from an airplane onto this very field!

I’m no real expert on this stuff, I’ve neither played for nor spent time with any baseball club, or done anything other than be a half-amused, half-sunburnt participant in the annual pilgrimage that is Spring Training. But there does seem to be some big portion of the action, or story—“drama” not quite right—going on off the field, in the organic interactions of fans, southbound flights and not-yet-faded optimism, more so than later in the year when the focus lies solely on team, chemistry, results, standings.

What makes a day at Spring Training, in other words, is the subtle joy of this makeshift community that assembles, every year, with old and young thrown together in outdoor discomfort under the warm sun, for no other purpose than to wait and hope to see if a winning ball-club will emerge on the other side of April.

I’ll miss it this year, but I’m there in spirit (and over-active bouts of Twitter reading).



Thoughts on the “Inning”