It’s early March. Florida — and Arizona, for some weird reason — is alive with the action of professional baseball teams knocking the rust off after another offseason of time spent with family, training, tweaking swings and deliveries, and doing whatever it is Daniel Norris does. From a fan perspective, the beginning of spring training is like Christmas. We awaken one February morning and emerge from our dens like so many groundhogs, but instead of searching for our shadows, we wander our environs excitedly uttering the words “pitchers and catchers report” like it’s some secret code or a language unto itself. We are mostly met with blank stares, but there are others out there like us, like the guy in the beat-up Red Sox hat in the produce aisle at the grocery store, who you break your ingrained hatred of “Big Papi and team who stole a series in 2013” so you may utter those words in anticipation of the immediate smile and glint in the eye of a true member of the tribe of baseball.
Spring training is something of a quick fix, like an appetizer delivered too far ahead of the real meal. It’s an appetizer that is laid in front of someone who had a light breakfast and missed lunch. It isn’t as good as it first tastes, but those first bites are glorious! Subsequent tastes prove lackluster, however, and eventually you are left with that last morsel that no one at the table seems to want to eat, instead wondering where the main course is.
In an effort to help you navigate your way from the appetizer to the main course, allow me to present you with a guide to the spring training experience. The five stages of spring training, if you will.
Pitchers and catchers report: Hell yes! Spring training is great.
It has been a long winter, as it always is. You’ve read all the “Why this guy should go here” and “What does this team need to do to get better?” articles. You have devoured all of the scarce baseball coverage that has existed over these winter months. You know why every single writer at The Athletic decided to join. You’re reading reports on third string catchers [Ed.: You’re welcome].
Then, baseball. You giggle with joy at the sound of the mitt popping in the first live bullpen thrown by some pitcher you know almost nothing about. Everyone is in the best shape of their life, as are you while you reach for that second bear claw that you tell yourself you are totally going to burn off later on that trip to the gym you won't be making. Baseball is back, and you are here for it.
Batting practice: [Insert player name here] can hit a ball thrown very straight at a very hittable speed very far, and he is probably the next Hank Aaron.
We move quickly to full-squad workouts. There are drills. Batting practice commences. Sports writers tweet about damage to cars in parking lots (and the weather). It’s the Nirvana of hitting. All pitches are grooved, tasty meatballs. The term “breaking pitch” is forgotten, for the time being. If it is uttered aloud, one is looked at as though they are speaking in some ancient tongue that has been lost to all but the most dedicated linguists. This is the time where the Steven Moyas of the world truly shine. This is fun.
Real games: Wherein you talk yourself into believing that whatever issue your team might have is totally not going to be a problem at all.
After the sacrificial warm-up slaughter of a local college team, real games finally begin in earnest. But by “real,” I mean totally meaningless, of course. On day one, you are just happy to hear your local radio announcers live on air. One to two innings of work from your normal starters are all you get, but that’s fine. It’s all you need at this point. By the end of the first game, you couldn’t pick a guy on the field out of a lineup. By the end of the third game, a sizable portion of the fanbase has stopped following spring training completely.
The peak of spring training excitement has been reached. Going forward, that interest and excitement drops off faster than the little yodeling fella on The Price is Right when you grossly overestimate the cost of laundry detergent. Fans’ collective attitude moves toward general indifference.
Somewhere along the way, we take a look at the team record. A quick glance at some box scores will convince most that the division is ours, and [insert glaringly obvious team problem(s) here] has been taken care of because some 29-year-old career minor leaguer had a good handful of spring games, and should be able to step in to carry the full weight of the major league load if necessary.
Injuries and roster cuts: Oh, your starting shortstop tore his ACL in the third inning of a split-squad game he was supposed to exit after the second, but talked his way into staying in for one more at-bat.
This is where we see a shift from general indifference to active dislike of spring training. What just a few short days ago was a joyous exercise, a rite of spring that no man should dare tamper with, has now turned into a reckless practice that should be immediately reconsidered.
This is the precise moment where your team’s fanbase begins critical and vocal evaluation of management at all levels, in earnest. You will see Dale from Novi (nice area), who created an account an hour ago, pop in to the comment section to question every level of command, from ownership down to the kid who drags the infield between innings, only to disappear into the ether like a crippled ship slipping silently below the waterline on a foggy night, never to be heard from again.
This is also the time when organizational decisions to trim the spring roster are made. Players will be assigned to different locations. Jim Price will talk about lockers on wheels. Dan Dickerson will chuckle. Eventually, more serious cuts will be made, and young over-performing players will rightfully be assigned to minor league camp. Management will again be questioned. The sun will rise. The sun will set. Somewhere, Gene Lamont will wonder what Don Kelly is up to, and if he ever thinks of him.
The final games before the team heads north: Remembering that spring training isn’t really as great as you tell yourself it is in January.
Eventually, rosters are trimmed. The final spring position battles are settled, and there are a few last games before the team heads north. These games are interesting only in the fact that you know what your roster looks like, and you’re basically watching the full team go through complete games in some semblance of what you will witness for the rest of the summer.
Outside of this, they are meaningless, and everyone knows it. You can feel it in the air. Like a relationship that went on too long because you wanted to use the other persons HBO GO password to finish the latest season of Game of Thrones, everyone is just going through the motions, and waiting for it to be over. There’s somewhere else we would all rather be, and we know it.
It’s easy in this moment to discount the virtues of spring training. It is a bridge we use to get us to the regular season and every April we happily light it aflame and bid it adieu. But let us not forget, in those cold hard weeks at the end of January when you aren’t sure if you can wait any longer, it is a beacon in the night offering the reassurance that there is indeed a respite ahead, and once again spring training is great.