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The Spring Training Experience

Feb 21, 2012; Fort Myers FL, USA; Boston Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine during spring training at JetBlue Park. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE
Feb 21, 2012; Fort Myers FL, USA; Boston Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine during spring training at JetBlue Park. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

I made the decision not to go to spring training this year, which is ultimately a decision I regret.

Four years ago, I decided I would go to spring training for a quick weekend trip. Living in Chicago, the idea of going to south Florida in the winter is an opportunity no reasonable person would turn down. I am a lover of all-things winter, but to have a weekend interruption from snow and ice and sleet sounded fantastic. A weekend of golf, poolside drinks, and a good book sounded tremendous. The fact that there's baseball there is just icing on the cake.

That weekend trip four years ago created a priority in me to get to Florida in the years that followed. In a confluence of events involving a free place to stay in a gated-golf community for the entire month of March, the desire to take a semester off of graduate school, and the ability to work from home, I spent 45 days in south Florida last year experiencing as much baseball as possible.

There is an excitement to spring training that is solely based on the fact that baseball is coming. It is the same reason people get excited about Truck Day as the official sign that the new baseball season is beginning. The pitchers and catchers arrive, reporting to the manicured green fields of Florida wearing their red practice uniforms. There are self proclamations of fitness, the best shape of their lifers, and an eagerness to report for duty. Then the position players file into camp, with this season being especially filled with excitement since there is a new ballpark to call home during the months of February and March.

And from a distance, there is a palpable excitement...and then what?

For the fans, there remains this romantic nature of what spring training is. For fans, it's still the symbolism of a new season dawning. 2012: the year of better pitching, better defense, and no Robert Andinos. Where the standings reset, and for the first day of the season every team is on a level playing field which means possibilities are limitless.

But caught up in the romance, it is easy to forget that for some players, these will be the hardest weeks of their lives. Not just from a physical standpoint, but for some, their dreams of becoming a ballplayer come to an end. There will be cuts and they will be brutal. The notion that as long as you have a jersey on your back you have a chance will end for some, who leave their dream behind and will have to reinvent their frame of reference to create a new life that does not involve workouts, bus rides, and baseball. The hellishly grueling time for these players if often glossed over by the niceties and the promise of a new season beginning in April.

And the niceties of spring are very nice. Especially this season in a new ballpark in south Florida with state-of-the-art amenities that can be enjoyed by the athletes and the fans, while the ownership collects pats on the back for the empire they have built with screened in Green Monster seats, commercial branding, and a field whose dimensions and experience replicate those of Fenway Park.

And then the teaser begins: a month of games whose outcomes have no real impact on baseball at all. A month of games in which you may see Andrew Miller give up 11 runs in one inning without being pulled or a starter enter the game in the fifth inning just to throw one inning. It's difficult to not be reactionary over a bad Josh Beckett start or to jump to conclusions that because a prospect hits four home runs in a week that he is ready for the big leagues.

But to actually attend spring training is a different experience altogether: it truly is it's own microcosm of baseball. In my experience, spring training is made up of many things, but traveling to south Florida for some is a rite of passage that is part of their baseball experience: not only is it an attempt to escape from a harsh northern winter, but the interaction is more intimate and intense, even though the games do not necessarily matter.

Most of the fans I have encountered at spring training are of a unique caliber. They typically seem astute, engaged, and knowledgable. Perhaps it is the giddy excitement of a new season's beginning or just the sunshine, but most seem talkative and polite to strangers. There is a shared experience of anyone in these spring training stadiums, most of which hold around 8,000 fans or less per game.

Since I typically buy single tickets for games, I often end up in the season ticket holder of the spring training stadiums. Usually in an aisle seat in a row that contains an odd number of seats, which is fantastic from a legroom standpoint. Most of the season ticket holders I have encountered are snowbirds older than my grandparents who take up residency in Florida during the winter. Most are also friendly and curious of a young woman sitting next to them, which afforded me many interesting conversations.

At one game, the gentleman next to me asked me if I recognized the man standing near the foul-line in a straw hat, blue Red Sox jersey, pleated khaki shorts, and bright white tube socks. I looked up from my scorebook and to the field and told the gentleman next to me that of course I recognized the man on the field: it was Bill Lee.

Of course he was surprised that I recognized him (mostly because of my age, not my gender), and the delight on his face as he recounted the highlights of Bill Lee's career for me was infectious. And we spent the entire game engaged in conversation about baseball. How he had converted his wife to a Red Sox fan after they were married, his son's baseball team that he coached, and all of the historically significant games he had seen in his tenure.

Spring training really is baseball in a vacuum. Perhaps my favorite piece of spring training is that the games are sometimes managed more like a little league game than a professional one. Coaches make decisions intended to give everyone a turn. Pitchers stay in even if they are giving up runs just to build their pitch counts. Sometimes sluggers like David Ortiz bat in the lineup behind a prospect who has never seen big league time. Save for forced handshakes and orange slices provided by an overachieving meddler of a parent, this could be a tee-ball game of five year olds instead of a game with league veterans. And if you are able to separate your desire for winning and competition, these aspects of the spring training in and of itself make it really entertaining to watch.

It is disappointing to think that this year I won't be taking a two-hour road trip to Bradenton to see the Red Sox play the Pirates while listening to 1970s soft rock with my friends. I will not be driving to Orlando to see the Atlanta Braves in their Disney balpark; I will not get to see the new Jet Blue Red Sox complex in any more detail than photographs. I won't have the opportunity to meet new people whose stories are eloquent and unique enough to write a novel with each chapter containing someone else's narratives.

So I will watch this spring with the excitement and anticipation of the new season's beginning. Not from the season ticket holder section of Jet Blue Park, but from my cubicle in my new office. Nostalgia for the March baseball microcosm filled with sunshine and palm trees will be in the forefront of mind, and that will have to be enough.