by Alex Langer
On February 13 and 14, pitchers and catchers began reporting for spring training in Arizona and Florida. In a few days, position players will report, and baseball will finally be back. I make no secret that baseball is my favorite sport—in fact, I think it might be the most perfect sport there is. I love baseball because of its rhythm, its monotony, and its surprises. For over a century, baseball has been the soundtrack and the background noise of every summers. When I was growing up, we’d put the Mariners game on the TV and I would go outside and play with my dad or my sister, and my mom would open the window wide so we could hear Dave Niehaus’s voice. When Griffey or A-Rod or Edgar would come up to the plate, we’d throw down our mitts and race inside, hoping to catch a moment of magic.
Baseball games are long. The season is longer. The vast majority of baseball games are boring. They come and they go; one team wins 4-2 and we all go home. But baseball exists because of the promise for magic. It exists, and we keep coming back to it, because one day you’ll be at the ballpark and your team will mount a historic comeback, because your fourth or fifth-best starter will pitch the game of his life and almost achieve perfection, because your favorite slugger will put three in the cheap seats and take a curtain call. Baseball promises magic. It lures you in with the promise of an unforgettable moment on a Tuesday night in early August. One hundred and sixty two games spread over six months promise you indelible moments of hope, joy, or even despair. And it all begins with spring training.
Spring training is an odd artifact of an older age, as many sports’ preseasons are. In an age where most baseball players spend their entire offseason training for the next season, the purpose of nearly a month and a half of training before a six-month season feels unclear. And yet spring training may also be baseball at its purest. Spring training crystallizes that sense of hope and magic that makes baseball great, bottles it, and gives it to you in the hot Arizona (or Florida) sun.
For starters, traditional statistics don’t matter in spring training. There is simply too much variance, too few at-bats, and too little preparation for those statistics to count. Players, especially those who are safely ensconced on a major league roster, come into spring training looking to add to their game. Whether that’s by adding a new pitch that they throw way more often than they will during the regular season, or focusing on hitting the ball the opposite way (to make themselves a more complete hitter), they approach spring training very differently than the regular season. The teams, the competition, and the lineups change on a daily basis. If you’re pitching, one start you might face a basically intact major league lineup, and the next start face a line-up entirely made of players ready to be sent down to the minor leagues. Finally, a typical batter gets between 50 to 100 plate appearances in spring training, compared to around 600 during the regular season. Any statistician will tell you that the smaller the sample size, the more likely the variances are.
So, if spring training isn’t particularly useful as an easy predictor of the regular season, what is it good for? Spring training distills the magic of the regular season. The moments where anything seems possible, when any player looks like they’re the second coming of Willie Mays, come hard and fast in spring training. Any day, you can go down to the field, usually in 80-degree weather, and you will not know what sort of game you’ll see until you get there. Sometimes you see a game where most of your favorite stars are in and ready to play. Sometimes you see the next great prospect, getting a peek at them before they return to the obscurity of the minors, only to (hopefully) burst back onto the scene in a year or two. Sometimes you see a group of players who will never make a big-league roster, but who get to wear the uniform, have their names called out, and play in front of a crowd.
You also get to see spring stars. Every team has one. Every season, at least one player who no one has ever heard of, and has no chance of making the roster, comes out of the gate and takes advantage of the variance to post eye-popping numbers, numbers that make you dream. The Orioles had Jake Fox, in 2011, who hit ten home runs in spring training, made their roster, but played in just nineteen games before being released. The Mariners had Wladimir Balentien in 2007 and 2008. After hitting twenty-two home runs in AAA Tacoma, and making his big league debut the previous September, Balentien tore up spring training 2007. However, he couldn't seem to do anything other than strike out or hit a home run. Despite his numbers, he lost out on the roster spot, came up midseason and struggled, and was traded the next year.
And still we dream. We dream of going to the ballpark, reading the team’s magazine, and predicting who will be the name on everyone’s lips come September. We get our lemonades, our hot dogs, our (only temporarily) cold beers, and we endure the inevitable sunburn for a chance to see something special. Two years ago, I went to a game between the Mariners and the White Sox where James Paxton was pitching. At the time, Paxton was a well-regarded prospect with a few quality starts under him. The M’s hoped that he would make the leap and become a reliable starter. I watched Paxton breeze through the White Sox roster for six innings, almost hitting 100 mph and flummoxing them. I was ready. I thought I was witnessing magic. Instead, Paxton got hurt, then got hurt again, and was mediocre. He came into last year’s spring training in “the best shape of his life,” with a lower arm angle, and ready to go. Instead, he looked awful, and was demoted to Tacoma. Then a funny thing happened. In July, with Felix Hernandez on the DL, Paxton came up and, after a few hiccups, began to look like an ace. He looked like the pitcher I saw that March. Now he’s on every breakout list and set for a great season. We’ll see how it goes. If he truly has turned the corner, I know that I was there when he first showed that spark.
Baseball is about the mundane turning magical. Its why we go to games in the middle of August, our team ten or fifteen games out of a playoff spot. Its why we put up with a season that stretches over half our year. Its for those moments when the ten thousand people left at the ballpark in the 15th inning can rise up and cheer on a position player trying to get Barry Bonds out, as I witnessed in 2003 (He did not get him out, if I recall. The Giants also won that game, much to my and my sister’s dismay). Spring training is about hope. The traditional stats may not matter very much, the standings mean less than squat. But it doesn’t matter when you see something jaw-dropping. In 2010, my aunt and uncle and I went to a Royals-Mariners spring training game. 2010 may have been the worst year in a bevy of bad years for the sad-sack franchise that is the Seattle Mariners. It was a night game. In that game, a minor leaguer for the M’s hit three home runs. He was a corner outfielder, playing pretty well in spring training. After he hit homer one, I was impressed. After homer two, I was excited. After homer three, I dreamt of an outfield of Ichiro, our top prospect Dustin Ackley, and this player. He would be the thunder to their lightning. We had found a diamond in the rough, that prospect who would finally get this team back to the playoffs. He didn’t make the team, and even after hours searching online I cannot find his name or what happened to him. The 2010 Mariners lost over one hundred games. Manager Don Wakamatsu was fired. General Manager Jack Zduriencik should have been fired. Griffey fell asleep in the dugout then retired in the middle of the night. It was a six-month unrelenting dumpster fire of a season. But I’ll always have that moment, that moment when spring training took the mundane and gave me a memory I’ll never forget. That is why we watch. That is why we love this game.