With temps plunging down around the big goose egg and arctic gales slicing across the region like the scythe of the Reaper Himself, it’s nice to be heralding the arrival of baseball. Or at least that faint version of it that amuses the snowbirds of New England who lavish small fortunes savoring thin Grapefruit League fare while otherwise simmering in Fort Myers’s interminable traffic jams.
The gates are being flung open at all the exotic Sunbelt spas where, for a hefty price, you, too, can be regaled by the grand old game’s tender illusions. Everyone is a contender. Next year has arrived. That strapping lad lumbering from the batting cage waving a pair of 40-ounce bats as if they were toothpicks might just be the next Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo.
It happens every spring! Show up at camp early and you can watch the entire gang bend over to touch their toes, then pare off for “catch,” “pepper,” maybe even sliding or pick-off drills – such arty if arcane stuff– with most of them surviving without side trips to the disabled list. Mind you, we’re not talking basic training at Fort Dix here; only baseball at Fort Myers.
The wisdom, let alone necessity, of spring training has been much debated over the last half century. In baseball’s Golden Age, when the game could do little wrong and all such rituals were regarded as quaint, few quibbled even if only the idle rich could hope to spend a fortnight in gorgeous places like Sarasota, Bradenton, or St. Pete. As a kid, one dreamed of spring training as if it were some sort of extended Brigadoon where you could wax all day on baseball lore, then mingle with the pretty people merrily at play as the sun set gloriously over the Gulf. We are no longer quite so naïve.
Moreover, in our times, the game is played 12 months a year, on the field and in the gym. Modern players may not be better, smarter, or more noble than their more colorful forebears but they’re unquestionably in much better shape. Girded by riches and lavished with the very best medical advice, conditioning programs, and dietary regulation the atomic age has devised, they hardly need calisthenics and wind sprints to fine-tune themselves, let alone 30 or so ballgames of little meaning that bore the best of them silly.
Is, therefore, spring training ultimately doomed? Not entirely, but there’ll come a day when it no longer looks like it always has. With its obsession with tradition and devotion to memory, baseball could never totally sever ties with so romantic a concept so beloved by we sentimental slobs who still form the erstwhile pastime’s core constituency, and probably always will.
Plus, the teams still profit heavily from spring training and the hosts – Florida and Arizona – will continue to move heaven and earth to guarantee that remains the case, pandering to their every whim if need be. But a leisurely and too often aimless six-to-seven week sabbatical in the sun every off-season has no chance of continuing forever in a game striving to look more contemporary, exploding in money, and looking to move in many new directions, and for all of those reasons less tied to its past.
Spring training is essentially a social event, a luxury that a new generation of baseball moguls determined to see the game become global are likely to eventually conclude they can no longer afford. That some change is coming is inevitable. Only how much and how painful is the question. Here’s a guess, and it’s only that. By 2025, not even a full decade distant, spring training will run about three weeks and feature no more than a dozen games with a lot of the action moving toward the Third World where the game will be fast extending.
In the meantime, we have the 2016 rendition to consider. What to expect? More bombshells, one suspects.
As a hugely intriguing note, we have on the very eve of the proceedings new Czar Rob Manfred’s resounding banishment “for lifetime” of the Mets Jenrry Mejia. It’s the third time in the last ten months that the obscure but highly promising Dominican reliever has been nailed for violating MLB’s now very tough and binding drug laws and they clearly and unequivocally call for his banishment. But if that’s no surprise, the emphasis Manfred is conveying is no less stunning, something would-be violators are well-advised to recognize. Manfred lowered the boom on Mejia the minute the evidence crossed his desk. There was no hesitation, no mish-mash about appeals, as might have been expected from his predecessor, Bud Selig. Clearly, the new boy is not playing footsie.
So what does this portend about Manfred’s approach to the next explosive issue he must face, and soon: whether or not to discipline three players flagged on domestic abuse allegations? One of them is Yasiel Puig, the Dodgers’ flamboyant but controversial Cuban import. But more important and trickier is the case of Aroldis Chapman, the flame-throwing sensation the Yankees obtained from the Reds over the off-season fully knowing he probably faces suspension.
But for how long? Domestic abuse is a powder keg in sports. Zero tolerance is the goal and it has been nearly achieved. From his Manhattan high-rise, Manfred need only glance down the avenue where his high and mighty colleague, the NFL czar, has been squirming over this issue two years and counting. It’s every sports mogul’s new worst nightmare.
Chapman, cleared by law-enforcement, faces no legal proceedings even though the misuse of a firearm muddles the matter further. But charged or uncharged, inappropriate behavior on his part has been established. Manfred can act on behalf of baseball without regard for what the law has done or not done. But can MLB reasonably argue it represents a higher law and can that argument survive arbitration, which the players association will certainly demand if Chapman is suspended?
Talk of your dilemmas. This will be the first test of MLB’s tough (at least on paper) domestic abuse policy which Manfred himself hammered out just four months ago. That the Yankees are the Yankees only adds further to the complexity, inevitably. If they get off the hook entirely you can count on additional furor. It all unravels shortly.
Such will be the tone and tenor this spring. You’ll be hearing more than you’d like on issues having little to do with the traditional pitter-patter about who’s going to win and why, and who looks good or otherwise.
The log is jammed. Every aspect of baseball is being fiddled with – the rules, the rosters, the umps, schedules, playoffs, TV deals, luxury taxes, replay. New expansion is in the whispering stage. The transfer of franchises remains a hot button matter. Global cultural exchanges are being sought. There’s still a bunch of free agents yet to be signed. Expect more trades than usual this time, too. And more fuss over international stars yearning to strike it rich in America. It’ll be a spring decidedly more gripped by what’s happening off the field than on.
What’s sacred? Nothing! And at the end of this season there will be the need to pound out a new MLB Basic Agreement between the players and owners, ever the joyful prospect. The current agreement expires the first of December. Should be a day at the beach, says you in that everyone in baseball currently revels in riches. “Just you wait, Henry Higgins,” says I. “Just you wait!”
Ah, spring training. Like so much in sports nowadays it’s no longer an escape. Seems like only yesterday that the biggest story coming out of Winter Haven, where the Red Sox so long and happily hung out, was about half the pitching staff missing curfew. Another year, the goofy philandering of a star third baseman kept us in laughs the entire month of March. Then there was the day Bill Lee stuck a snake in Reggie Smith’s locker. An enraged Reggie near chased Spaceman all the way to Lake Wales.
Now that was spring training at its best. One misses it dearly.