While most of the country is digging out from under the latest blizzard it may be hard to fathom but spring has officially arrived.
Okay, so spring may not be officially here according to the calendar but try telling that to the Boys of Summer who are embarking on the start of their work year and getting down to the business of playing ball.
After shaking off the dust during inter-squad drills, and simulated games, it is now time for Major League Baseball teams to face each other in real competition as the games of the 2013 Spring Training season have begun in ballparks across Florida and Arizona.
Spring Training serves as a chance for teams to gel together and learn the strengths and weaknesses on the roster. Rosters are never the same from one year to the next so oftentimes players are meeting as teammates for the first time when they report to camp. It is also a time for players on the bubble of making the team to either hurt or help their chances based on their performance between the foul lines.
While it has been tradition for teams to hold Spring Training for as long as anyone reading this has been alive; that was not always the case. Late in the 19th Century most of the Major League Baseball teams were located in northern cities like New York, Chicago, and Cincinnati.
Members of the Baltimore Orioles warm up during a 2012 Grapefruit League Spring Training game with the Tampa Bay Rays in Port Charlotte, FL.
Photo R. Anderson
It is still cold in these cities during February and March. As someone who never wore shorts on his March birthday until moving to Florida, I can attest to that. Also, the idea of an indoor ballpark was still about a century away. So, a warmer option was sought as a means for players to train before the season started.
In 1870, five years after the end of the Civil War, the Cincinnati Red Stockings and the Chicago White Stockings conducted organized baseball camps in New Orleans, LA. Jacksonville, FL saw action in 1888 when the Washington Capitals of the National League held a four-day camp.
While the exact start of the migration of Spring Training to the South is often debated, no one can argue that by the start of the 20th Century it had changed the game in a momentous way. While other states had been used for Spring Training in the past, today teams are divided between Arizona and Florida.
In Florida, 15 teams will compete in the Grapefruit League while the other 15 teams will compete in Arizona’s Cactus League. Instead of taking the time to list who plays where there is an easy formula to remember. With the exception of the Houston Astros all teams that reside west of the Mississippi River during the regular season train in Arizona. Teams east of the River call Florida home for the Spring. So there you have it as long as you know where the mighty Mississippi slices through the country you are covered.
The Houston Astros are the only team west of the Mississippi River to hold Spring Training in Florida.
Photo R. Anderson
And while Spring Training facilities were chosen for the warm climates they are not completely immune to the weather as a photo of snow this week at the Colorado Rockies Spring Training facility in Arizona can attest to.
Teams are also forced to dodge raindrops in games in Florida. Despite these weather hiccups, few would argue that Florida and Arizona still tend to be way warmer this time of year than most of the rest of the country.
I have often wondered why scores are kept, and winners and losers are crowned, during Spring Training since the games do not count against a team’s regular season record. It is not like a strong showing in the exhibition games guarantees success when the games start to count for real. The same goes for teams that struggle through Spring Training. A poor record during the Spring does not mean in all cases that the team will struggle throughout the regular season as well.
After weeks of practicing against each other the games are now starting to count at Spring Training ballparks in Arizona and Florida in preparation for the regular season.
Photo R. Anderson
So why do they keep score? The simplest reason is the competition level is more intense when there is something on the line. As players battle to be included on rosters having the games mean something, even if it is only bragging rights help ensure that everyone is playing at a high level.
The players and coaches are not the only ones who enjoy their time in the sun. Each year thousands of fans descend upon the ballparks to catch their favorite team in action. Others go from ballpark to ballpark to just enjoy the sights and sounds of a baseball game.
Many of the fans are also retired to the regions where the teams play so there is a definite older crowd present at many of the games. One of the things that I enjoy when I attend a Spring Training game, aside from the relaxed atmosphere and sunshine, is hearing the stories from people who are much older than I am who saw many of the legends play at Spring Training decades earlier. In that way the game is timeless. While the names on the jerseys change, and the prices of the peanuts and Cracker Jacks change, the game itself is mostly the same and is a shared experience that transcends the generations.
So has Spring Training rolls around once again travel plans abound as fans of all ages seek to get in touch with their inner child by traveling to see a game or two, or three, or four, or you get the idea.
To date I have witnessed games in six Spring Training ballparks. My goal is to visit each of the 30 team’s spring training sites in the next three years or so in addition to their main home ballparks. Will I reach that goal? Only time will tell. Still, if one has no goals there is nothing to reach for and life becomes mundane and repetitive. And really who wants to be mundane and repetitive?
Now if you’ll excuse me, all of this talk about sunshine and warmth has me a little thirsty for some sweet tea.
Copyright 2013 R. Anderson