The Spectator Thaw

Now that spring training is underway in earnest, it should be noted that it’s not just players that are coming out of hibernation. Fans as much as players benefit from these casual, sun-drenched games. Early reporting dates blur into work-outs and on to friendly games. Far away and relatively incosenquential, the whole process seems tailor made to safely wean us spectators off the spastic fury of football or the perpetual excitement of basketball. It stretches our sense of time even as sporadic developments in camp—a pulled groin, arbitration avoided or bad blood in the clubhouse—reprogram our expectations to accommodate baseball’s demands: long lulling innings broken up by intense action and focus.

For some, there is no such thing as too much baseball. Take Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby. “People ask me what I do in the winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.” (For perspective, the Cardinals slugger (1915-1926) was reportedly so worried about protecting his eyes from strain off the field that he refused to read newspapers or watch movies.)

Like much of baseball’s early history, the origins of spring training are murky. Some baseball historians say the custom started in 1870 when the Cincinnati Red Stockings and Chicago White Stockings set up camp, appropriately enough, in the Big Easy, New Orleans. At first, teams crisscrossed the South playing exhibition games against college teams and semi-pro clubs. (After a boozy tour of the South in 1886, the Chicago White Sox set up camp in Hot Springs, Ark. to “boil out the alcoholic microbes” before the season kicked off.) But by 1910 teams began setting up camps in Florida. The Grapefruit League was born. During World War II, teams kept their camps close to home to free up vital resources for the war effort. (The Yankees trained in Asbury Park, NJ, the Red Sox were at Tufts’ athletic fields.) The San Francisco Giants defection west to Arizona launched the Cactus League.

Modern players rarely slack off during the off-season. Workouts are slimmed down, say to three hours daily, but not abandoned. In short, players are more likely to arrive with extra pounds on their biceps than bellies. That was not always the case. In baseball’s youth, players took jobs in the off-season and jawed with co-workers over beers. As a result, spring training was more of athletic triage where managers moved aggressively—liberally doling out wind sprints, for example—to insure that come opening day players would not be audibly wheezing from the stands after hustling out an infield single.

These days, players continue to train but March has also become something of contractual war zone where agents lay siege to the front office. Players without contracts don’t report. Others report but acknowledge, repeatedly and at length, that they might soon depart. Management tries to rally the fans against such holdouts but get no traction since real games are not on the line.

Of course, modern players are hardly the first to shirk spring training. Early greats like Ty Cobb and Jimmie Foxx were notorious for their late arrivals. Others preferred hunting, rowing or skating to endless rundown drills. Hard to blame them really. As fans this is what we prefer, a meandering gambol into the season. We need these relaxing days only sporadically filled with games viewed or articles read before the season’s incessant drum begins to beat and we find ourselves unwilling to miss a pitch. Let the snow melt slowly, the time is still ours.

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