2-20-22 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter
There’s a culture that has been built in baseball, an entire ecosystem of fandom that almost flips the importance from the end of the season to the beginning, it’s called Spring Training and for some, it’s more important than the World Series.
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some of these fans over the years both at Spring Training and through the writing and podcasting. I’ll tell you what, it’s more than just a bunch of games, for many it’s bringing the family into a world that somehow makes them understand you better.
The old friends who work and live in Bradenton seem to remember you year over year, and even if they don’t, from minute one they know they share something in common with you, a love for the game.
For someone like me, it’s taught me that while I have to evaluate these players fairly, these are real people, with real families. They can handle criticism mind you, but let’s just say I refrain from “he’s a bum”, or “head case”, things like that. If I honestly say so and so is not recognizing the breaking pitch, they aren’t blind, they know I’m right. Incredible how freely players or even family will discuss that stuff with a stranger if approached from a place of honesty and understanding.
So I asked some of you to tell me why Spring Training is so special to you?
My buddy Joe Myers from West Virginia was first to share.
“Went to Bradenton in 2003 with my brother and two sons. There was a prospect, JR House, who approached us after a workout and made it a trip to remember. He’s from the Charleston WV area. I was so impressed with him and how he handled himself, I wrote a letter to the editor to the Charleston paper.”
Next up was Kevin…
See that’s some of the stuff I wanted to get to. The family ties that get strengthened by being there. It’s not just bringing your own family closer, its also about feeling a connection to players. Joe and Kevin’s kids will never forget those players, even if some of them wound up not being super successful players.
Craig Toth of our own site makes the pilgrimage every year, here’s what he had to say.
“Living in The Northeast, and having to deal with the bitter cold of a Western PA winter, heading to the warmth of Bradenton brings on a rush of feelings that are hard to explain. Even in the years where the hope that Spring Training is supposed to represent is little more than a pipe dream, walking into Pirate City for morning workouts-and maybe having the opportunity to catch a Minor League pickup game-just hits different. The clatter of cleats as Pirates players walk past fans in route to their next drill, the autograph hounds flipping through huge binders of baseball cards, family members meeting the other young men their sons have built life-time bonds with and small groups of fans with gloves looking to shag some homers hit over the left field fence. It’s an experience like none other; and one that every baseball fan should get to enjoy at least once.”
There are things you just can’t see unless you’ve done it, Craig is dead on there and it’s a theme I see and hear repeated constantly when talking with folks.
Bob Downy talks a bit about why it’s different too.
Jim feels largely the same.
These next couple speak to why baseball hurts itself and why some folks hold onto it even when it isn’t deserved.
Tim Waxenfelter had this to say “I’m not the biggest baseball fan, but I’ve done the FL spring training trip 16 times. My first cactus league trip was canceled at the beginning of COVID. I go with a great friend, and this guarantees we see each other for 4 or 5 days a year. We love the ritual of it and the looseness. Hanging out for a couple of hours in between the fields at Pirate City watching young players coached by guys I may or may not remember from their playing days reminds me that this is a game, a sport, and doesn’t always have to be a big expensive business.”
Man is that a mouthful. Truly well said and a symptom of what baseball has created both good and bad.
We’ve seen this before though right Michael?
Yup, and we learned so much from it that we’re repeating history.
Excellent point here by my man Greg, he’s absolutely right, we don’t think about this aspect.
On the plus side, I’ve been told by multiple sources that many players are planning to head down to Spring Training sites in the next couple weeks anyway, referencing difficulties in finding lodging and positive discussions with player reps. Take that for what its worth, but players don’t stop working and practicing regardless of the situation baseball has itself in.
I’ve heard it said by pundits countless times that as long as we don’t miss regular season games this will all be no harm no foul. These fans all say something different, and maybe that’s because to them it’s not about the grind of having your head on a swivel looking for stories.
Another type who isn’t talked about much is a guy like Bligh Madris. He’s worked his ass off to work his way through the system, gone to play Winter Ball in Australia, attended camps in the off season, all to get better. All to get to this point where he was almost assuredly going to get his first official invite to Spring Training.
He’s not a dumb kid, I’ve talked to him a bunch over the past couple years and all he wants, all he hoped for, was a shot. He knows what’s around him, knows what’s coming in the outfield, but this Spring Training in 2022 was supposed to be his shot.
He’s not alone. It’s probably going to cost some youngsters who wanted to have a shot at making the 26 man their opportunity too.
Baseball’s problems are bigger than losing Spring, but when this event provides opportunity for youngsters, older fans to introduce the game and being around players to the next generation, it really makes you question the wisdom of not trying to talk sooner.
Thanks to everyone who contributed to this piece, you all already put more into Spring this season than MLB has.