Roger Hornsby, one of baseball’s greats, once said, “People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.”
After what seemed like forever, which for me has been since Oct 13, when the Cardinals were knocked out by the Cubs in the NLDS, or when the Royals won Game 5 of the World Series for everyone else, baseball is finally back! Well kind of. Following a tradition dating back to 1910, this week is the first full week of Spring Training.
For baseball fans, who suffer from the second-longest offseason among professional sports (152 days roughly) in the United States, the mere arrival of pitchers and catchers to Arizona or Florida is treated as one of the best times of the year. It’s the first opportunity most spectators get to see the new pieces that their team added, to see how their team will stack up against everyone else in the league or just to finally watch some real baseball once again.
What makes the wait from the World Series to now feel even longer than the NFL’s offseason, which is the longest professional offseason, is that Major League Baseball isn’t constantly shoving baseball down our throats like the NFL, who makes even small events, like releasing the next season’s schedule, into a holiday for the sport. In fact, the biggest event in MLB was the opening to free agency back in December, and since then there haven’t been any major headlines in the world of baseball.
Spring Training serves a couple of purposes for the teams. It first allows their players to work out and prepare their bodies for the long slog of a 162-game season. Baseball, while not as physically demanding as football or hockey, is still exhausting for almost every player because they go weeks with only three or four days off in the dead of summer.
The second purpose for the teams is to see just how their new pieces are going to fit in, and lets them try out players from their farm system to determine if anyone should get the call up to the majors. While it doesn’t happen all the time, sometimes there is a player that goes above and beyond what the team expects him to produce and he gets that call-up.
The final purpose for teams is the increased exposure they get from being in teams. They can expand their fan base into a part of the country they would otherwise have no right in having (except the Diamondbacks, Rays and Marlins), and Spring Training becomes something of a pilgrimage for baseball fans across the country who travel during their spring breaks, or whenever they get a chance.
I’ve gone down to Florida twice for Spring Training, and while the games themselves aren’t great (they are exhibitions after all), the experience is what made it truly incredible. There is no other time or place where you get to be that close to the players during their practices, to the point where after taking a batting practice session they can just walk over to you and start talking about random things.
Or one of your team’s legends walks by and signs your hat while wishing you a happy birthday. That’s how you earn lifelong fans, by connecting directly with the people you consider fans. As much as people hate St. Louis fans because they think they are obnoxious (I would prefer the term “proud”), the reason the Cardinals have built such a large and loyal fanbase is because of things like Spring Training. That extends beyond the Cardinals organization, as every team has the opportunity to build up their fan base as they build up their team.
So as baseball comes back into our lives and spring is just around the corner, let’s tell Roger that he can stop looking out the window and go play.