Winter is always tough for me. I feed on sports discourse the way a tree feeds on sunlight–I need lots of it, all the time, or else I shrivel up and die. This might why I have the ESPN app on my phone sending me score updates for 17 teams across five sports, plus a racing driver. During baseball season, the Phillies (and, in passing, the South Carolina Gamecocks) are enough to keep me going because baseball is the sport I know and care most about. I certainly give the Stanley Cup playoffs their due attention, and if there’s an Olympics or a World Cup to fill the dull hours, so much the better. Once the World Series is over, there’s Hot Stove discussion, plus the best part of college football season and the part of the Premiership season before Arsenal drops out of the title race, to keep the sports juices going.
But after the New Year, things get grim. Particularly in a year when the soccer team you follow is suffering its worst season in more than a decade, and the mention of the club’s best player and the historic season he’s having elicits not joy but soul-crushing depression at the knowledge that he’ll leave for Manchester City or Barcelona in the summer. Just like all the best Arsenal players do. Sure, the Sixers are on a nice run, and I love hockey, but without baseball, it’s not enough. This is the time of year where I try to psych myself into caring about the effect of the near-ubiquitous duckbill nose in the coming Formula 1 season. Early February is a rough time for me.
Which brings me to my point: all winter long, people I follow on Twitter (mostly women, for whatever reason, though that might just be a product of who I follow and is not meant to convey any sort of commentary on gender politics in modern sports fanhood) have been counting down to the start of spring training. “93 days until pitchers and catchers!” they said, back when that distance was so great as to be depressing. Now we’re within two weeks of that blessed day: “pitchers and catchers.” And I cannot bring myself to get excited about it. At all.
It seems like we fetishize training camp in baseball more than in other sports. I love soccer and hockey, but I have no idea when Arsenal starts their summer workout regimen, or even when they start playing exhibition games. The same for the Flyers–I went to a preseason game this past fall, but I have no memory of what month that game took place, even though Tom Sestito’s brutal, if massively illegal, hit on Ranger center Andre “Bel Biv” Deveaux was one of the highlights of my sporting 2011. No sport except for football, which magnifies and fetishizes everything, places such stock in its preseason. I think the name “pitchers and catchers” is part of the problem. It sounds cool and somehow in-the-know to say “pitchers and catchers,” I think, so we do it.
There’s also something to spring training marking the beginning of, you know, spring. Baseball is, perhaps more tied to the seasons than any other popular American game. Football has been played professionally in the United States in spring, summer, and fall. Basketball, a largely indoor undertaking, is almost devoid of seasonal or meteorological context, and ice hockey, for all the nostalgia about skating on frozen lakes with your buddies, in 2004 crowned its champion in June, in Florida, and holds its world championships in the summer. As for soccer, most of the world’s leagues play roughly a basketball schedule, August to May, while in the United States, Russia, and Scandinavia, the game runs through the summer.
So much for seasonal context.
But in baseball, weather and history dictate that we have “spring training,” the “boys of summer,” and the “fall classic.” The start of baseball, more than the equinox or warm weather, marks the start of spring, a sentiment captured by the poet Donald Hall. It’s beautiful stuff, and I appreciate that. I get that the trip down to Clearwater makes a nice spring vacation, and an opportunity to see the stars in a closer and more relaxed environment than you might find during a regular season game. At least I’d hope so, because if it weren’t a great baseball trip there’d be no rational reason to get that close to Tampa. I just don’t get the hysteria over practice. Not a game. Practice.
“Pitchers and catchers” makes for a nice temporal landmark, but from a baseball perspective, doesn’t mean anything. The entire team doesn’t even work out together for a full week after pitchers and catchers report, and doesn’t play an exhibition game until a week after that. Everyone’s been counting down to wind sprints, long toss, and weightlifting. They’ve been doing this all winter, folks. The only difference is that they’ll have called each other before coming to work and decided to all dress alike. Even if they wanted to play a game, they’d be seven guys short.
Then spring training games start, and after a couple days of watching Matt Rizzotti mash meaningless taters, we start to get down to business. Then we get to see who might be on form for the coming season, who’s developed a new pitch or altered his swing, and which unknown is set to make the leap and contribute in a big way. To say nothing of the return of Jim Thome and the first look at Jonathan Papelbon. That time, around the second week of March, is when I start getting excited about baseball–when something worth talking about happens.
Of course, if you do get all worked up for pitchers and catchers, more power to you. I certainly don’t think getting excited for preseason workouts is stupid or anything, and I’ll certainly be paying attention when it happens. It’s just hard to work up the enthusiasm, even for a deranged sports addict like me.