At its heart, spring training is a contradiction. It’s the place the best baseball players in the world go to relearn how to play baseball.
Maybe because of that, it’s also an upside-down version of pro sports. Instead of late, it all happens early. Instead of wound up, everyone is chilled out. Instead of grand, everything is small (or, in the case of the Yankees, a bit smaller).
Spring training is where you can still have a human conversation with a professional athlete, and it does not feel as though you are interrogating him under hot lights, and that he is just barely tolerating your existence.
Because of this ease, all the best war stories come out of spring training.
Everyone who’s been there has a million of them. Here’s one of my favourites which, like most of them, has very little to do with baseball.
They do both anthems before every Toronto Blue Jays game in Dunedin, just like at the real thing. Unlike the real thing, the talent pool is not deep.
By the fifth game of the Grapefruit League, you’re often getting people who want to sing, rather than people who can sing.
One dozy afternoon, the singer – a teenager, by the look of her – was an early castoff from the most recent season of American Idol. She nailed the U.S. anthem – the whole swinging-from-the-elbows, Mariah-Carey-warbling thing at the end. But before she began O Canada, she took a small piece of paper out of her pocket and cupped it in front of her.
It was an unusually windy day. You see where this is headed.
Once the paper had been swept from her hand, which happened within the first few bars, she was reduced to word-humming our national song. This is that process where you seem to be saying English words, but are instead just making random, semi-connected sounds.
Well aware of her distress – the stadium is small enough, and that game so sparsely attended, that people audibly groaned as the paper fluttered away – the largely Canadian crowd took up the song. They piggybacked the singer all the way to the end. A small, terrible moment had been turned into a sweet one.
Afterward, all of the reporters went down to meet then Blue Jays manager John Gibbons in right field. Because it was spring training – seriously, who cares? – we had nothing baseball-related to ask him. So someone said, “What’d you think of the anthem?”
“That poor girl,” Gibbons said. “I sure felt bad for her.”
A small collective pause to consider the girl and her poorness.
Then, “What would you do if she’d done that to the American anthem?”
Gibbons answered in language that can’t be printed in a family newspaper. Let’s just say, the two transgressions were very different in his mind.
I cherish this memory not because the punchline was so great, but because it was such a spring training moment. It was a small intimacy, a joke told among friends.
Because in spring training, the manager and the media can still be friends. None of this matters yet. No one cares if you didn’t send the runner on that play in the seventh. Because no one cares, the baseball team doesn’t have to either.
One year, as part of a questionnaire, I asked a Jays player to describe his idea of perfect happiness.
He was not perfectly happy at that moment, with his cronies sitting a few feet away and listening in.
“Playing with my little daughter,” he said.
I wrote that down.
Then he turned to his posse, leering, and said, “What I really mean to say is playing with my dog, but I guess that ain’t gonna sound too good in the newspaper, is it?” That’s a spring-training-type answer. Not particularly sweet, but it is the one time you are likely to get a telling reply along with the clichéd one.
Because none of this counts. It’s right there in the name – this is just training.
This is diametrically opposed to the way people usually talk in and about pro sports. Everything’s supposed to matter immensely, all of the time. It matters in direct proportion to how much money everyone’s making, which is a ton.
At spring training, not mattering is the secret password to another, more relaxed kind of pro sports.
During the regular season, most pros make it a point never to catch the eye of someone in the stands 10 feet away calling their name. At spring training, many of them will lean up on a fence and have a conversation with a fan. They’ll say “Hello” or “Good morning” to strangers as they pass on the way to stretch.
When a player has a bad day in spring training, he doesn’t feel the need to performatively mope around the clubhouse afterward. A few can even laugh at themselves.
The most common rejoinder to any technical question in spring is, “I’m working on some things.” Try “I’m working on some things” after you’ve blown a save in September. Pretty soon, you’ll be working on some things for the Toledo Mud Hens.
In spring training, you get to see these guys as tradesmen tinkering with their craft. Most are as at ease as any skilled workman in his shop. This ease suffuses their personalities. They’re different people in Florida, which allows the rest of us to be different people with them. It’s the closest covering sports ever gets to hanging out with your co-workers.
My representative spring training memory has absolutely nothing to do with baseball. It is the drive from Tampa Airport along Highway 60 and into Clearwater, where everyone stays.
That stretch of road is a long, low, land bridge that at certain points appears by a trick of the eye to be running slightly below the water line. Like you’re going under the sea.
That opening drive gives you the sense that you are headed somewhere … ‘magical’ is a stretch, but maybe ‘fantastical’. Somewhere very different than whatever you’re used to.
On Wednesday, for those lucky enough to be there in Florida and Arizona, for just six weeks, professional baseball becomes something very different. For that short while, it becomes a game.