The Value of Spring Training

ZOË RICE: For the past week or so, I have glutted myself on Mets’ spring training reports. I wasn’t able to go in person, but I’ve been glued to Twitter, blogs, and SNY. I’ve seen about a hundred pictures from Port St. Lucie, at least a dozen videos, and heard every report on Jose Reyes’s health, or how Oliver Perez looks in bullpen sessions, or how Jeff Francoeur is the happiest, most positive person in the world, or how Jason Bay is already fitting in, or how good first round prospect Ike Davis looks, or what Daniel Murphy and Mike Jacobs look like at first…trust me, the list goes on.

Without the onslaught of new media or the benefit of a team TV network, spring training would just be spring training. Guys would arrive from the off season, get conditioned, go through drills to relearn baseball muscle memory, ease back into a game-time mentality, and if situation permits, fight for a spot in the big leagues. I admit I don’t really care how many games the Mets win at spring training. Winning is not all that important, but I do think that watching can be. For instance, in today’s Grapefruit League opener, I got to watch on SNY when Ike Davis scored his first run as a Met. But then, I probably would have seen that even if I hadn’t watched the telecast; indeed, Matt Cerrone’s got it up already on Metsblog. First round pick Davis has been under a microscope at PSL as we get our initial look at what we expect to be our first baseman of the future. And I remember spring training ’08, when I got to see (in person) Jon Niese pitching for the first time. The kid was amazing. And since that moment watching him pitch in Vero Beach against the Dodgers, I’d been waiting to see him called up. When he was, my excitement level was greater than it would’ve been if I had just looked at a sheet of numbers.

But these are the obvious calls–the big prospects you’re bound to see or hear about in some form even if you only follow spring training casually. During today’s game, I also saw an impressive Jesus Feliciano, whom I’d never even heard of before, Chris Carter, whom I’d been curious about since the Billy Wagner trade, Mike Jacobs back in a Mets uniform fighting for either a bench spot or unlikely first base, and several more lesser-known players I wanted to set eyes on. And after seeing today’s game, I’m curious about pitcher Bobby Livingston, who stepped in for a couple scoreless innings. The truth is, I want to see as many players in a Mets uniform as I can, and I want to know who the best guys in the Mets’ farm system are. But I’m not quite ready to devote the time and effort to closely following the minors. I’d rather get this month-long crash course before the season starts.

But also, spring training baseball is an amuse bouche, a palate cleanser after the off-season. It’s cocktail hour. Now is the time to just enjoy watching the players work on their mechanics, to peer at your favorites, to get some baseball back in your life. This is the fun hour, mingling with the crowd, gossiping over a martini. If you’re hungry for baseball, you don’t have to wait until the sit-down dinner.  Go ahead, enjoy the hors d’oeuvres. They may not be as substantial as the meal, but you can still appreciate the nuances of flavor.

CHRIS NEEDHAM: Here’s the thing. Once you cut away all the overwrought rhetoric, spring training is pretty freaking boring.

I know plenty of people look forward to it, but what we’re looking forward to isn’t pitcher’s fielding or watching Ryan Howard working on his bunting. We’re not looking forward to seeing eventual 4th starters at Double-A sling the ball wildly. We’re not looking forward to seeing Randy Wolf work on a new pitch as batters tee off on him. And we’re certainly not looking forward to reading about all these damn players in the best shape of their lives.

But that’s what spring training is, no matter how much we try and romanticize it. It’s not about rebirth, or a return to America’s pastoral character.

It’s about some guys fine tuning themselves, getting ready for what’s usually a pretty long season.

So much of spring is tedious. The aforementioned ‘best shape’ reporting is just one of about 7 generic storylines that fill each team’s daily rags.

Breathless reports on twitter and blogs make every tiny little thing seem like it’s important. If the scrub backup catcher has a sore arm, it’s elevated to critical status. The manager’s statements are parsed and decoded in a way that would make your average Kremlinologist say “Nyet!”

So much energy is focused on roster decisions. But those are usually mostly settled. Guaranteed contracts take up large chunks of the roster. And option status often dictates another nice chunk. What we’re left with is battles between has-beens and never-weres over who’s going to be the 7th reliever or the 5th outfielder. Sure, it seems like an open competition for 25 spots, but it’s not. And it never is, even on a lousy team.

And let’s be honest: the games are boring. Star pitchers aren’t necessarily giving it their all. They’re often working on something — a new pitch, focusing on command, a new grip… whatever. And the star players — when they play — are only in for a few innings. Most spring training games are decided by this year’s Triple-A roster filler. That’s great for fans of Columbus, but, really, it’s kinda boring.

That’s not to say that more baseball is a bad thing. But spring training isn’t real baseball — at least as its practiced on the major league level. And just because the sport’s absence makes our heart yearn (there I go with the weepy rhetoric), it doesn’t mean that we should settle for this slop. Wake me up at the end of March.

JASON CLINKSCALES: Yes, hope springs eternal, but that’s mostly for the teams that have had little hope in recent years. For the teams that play for the here and now, however, you can’t help but to think that spring training feels more like extended calisthenics and glorified batting practice. Either way, there’s still value, though, in the thirty games for these squads, just not so much for the fans.

For clubs with mostly established rosters such as the World Series champion Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers and even the Cardinals, spring training is strictly about evaluating potential bargaining pieces (think of Florida Marlins phenom Hanley Ramirez being showcased by Boston in 2005). These franchises already made enough moves in the offseason to lock down their 25-man rosters and just hope to (insert deity here) that none of their new toys get broken en route to April.

For all other teams, you just look to spring training to attempt to comprehend a team owner’s thriftiness (here’s looking at you, Pittsburgh… again and again and again…). You hope that Jason Heyward is as advertised in Atlanta or any of the prospects involved in the Roy Halladay-Cliff Lee deal turn into something for Toronto, Philadelphia or Oakland.

There’s that hope word again.

Spring training, similar to the always-angering NFL preseason or the completely overlooked preseasons in the NBA and NHL, is not about fans in the sense of ‘seeing the future NOW’. No matter how much obsession baseball fans have for these games or content they provide for regional sports networks, these ‘insignificant’ contests are about the July trading deadline and little else.

Maybe it’s because Mother Nature makes millions of people miserable for three+ months and seeing those pitcher fielding practices make us ever fonder of warmer temperatures. Yet, ascertaining anything from seeing spring training invitees likely headed back to the minors won’t help us get to those 65-degree days any faster.

JESSICA BADER: As recently as a couple of years ago, I devoured every morsel of spring training coverage as though it were a four-star restaurant’s finest offering and I had subsisted on bread and water for the previous three and a half months. Now I’m just another cranky grump wishing I could fast-forward to Opening Day. What happened?

First, the intensity of spring training coverage has increased exponentially over the past two or three years even as the actual events being covered are the same as they always were. Where we once had the colorful anecdotes in the newspaper and the occasional exhibition game on TV, now every barely-significant event and mildly interesting comment leads to nearly identical tweets from dozens of beat writers and columnists and at least half a dozen versions of the same story appearing in various publications, and any team with a regional sports network is likely to televise just about every home spring training game. It’s more than I can keep up with, and quite frankly trying and failing to do so makes me feel like a bad fan.

Second, while the idea of roster spot battles is often a farce played up by the media to make exhibition games feel as though they matter, if you root for a team that is misguided enough that it might actually make significant roster decisions based on small samples against competition that bears little resemblance to the major leagues in overall talent level and even less in intensity, it’s a downright scary and depressing prospect. I don’t want to spend the next four weeks being scared to death that Gary Matthews, Jr. will make a couple of flashy plays in the outfield and post a shiny batting average against non-roster invitees and guys who are working their arms into shape and that this will lead to him getting far too many at-bats once the games actually count.

Perhaps my curmudgeonly attitude towards spring training can be blamed on being a Mets fan – my team has found new and creative ways to stomp on my heart each of the last few years, making the “looking forward to a new season” aspect of spring training less attractive than it once was. Perhaps it’s an annoyance with the emphasis on matters that would be considered trivial once the regular season is underway. Perhaps it’s just plain old information overload. Whatever the reason(s), while “pitchers and catchers report” are still among the sweetest words in the English language, spring training doesn’t appeal to me the way it once did.

This entry was posted in Sports and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.