The temperatures in Arizona this week were cold enough to delay a golf tournament by several hours due to frost. Tempe recorded its lowest temperature in as long as anyone could remember at 29 degrees on Friday.
There are colder, more miserable places everywhere in the country, but the desert has not escaped the grip of winter. It is slow to release this year and for the Major League Baseball teams with pitchers, catchers and players injured last year due to report on Monday, if it doesn’t get warm soon, it will be as troublesome as last year’s incessant rain.
Things are better in Florida. Ft. Meyers was 81 today. Last Monday was “Truck Day” in Boston, a sure sign of spring despite the current conditions there. Three tractor-trailers left Fenway Park with all the equipment needed in Fort Myers Florida for the Boston Red Sox camp. To some die hard Sox fans it is, by all accounts, the first day of spring, since it must surely come if the Red Sox have gone to training.
Despite the much heralded (mis)belief that baseball players are a slovenly lot of performance enhancing drug users, many of the players are already in camp working on a new position or a new pitch. Most, to the astonishment of many who read these spring reports of mine, have been working out since mid December.
Baseball is serious business played for lots of money. It is no longer a game of pure talent. One cannot put glove and bat down in October, and pick up again in mid-February. It is a full time job. In the next eight months, every team will play over 200 games in cold and heat and rain. For a team fortunate enough to go on to the play-offs, the 36 game spring and the 164 game regular seasons will be extended by as many as 32 more. They often play ten days in a row and then travel one to play three more. The speed and finesse and grind of the game today demands that they be in much better shape than Babe Ruth ever dreamed of in the 1920’s. To play 196 baseball games in eight and a half months and do it well, you do not just pick up that funny looking leather glove and the white ball with the stitching on it and toss it around a few times for a week beforehand.
Our annual pilgrimage is in mid-March this year. As always, we want to see who still has the skills, who has lost a step or two, and who might be a little better this year so that their dreams of making an Opening Day Roster will be realized. These last come with expectations. They believe they are good enough and only have to get the manager and coaching staff’s attention long enough to prove it. Some will and some won’t. Managers and coaches tend to have their line-ups penciled into their minds early. These change only when an injury, the inability to throw strikes, or, as the legendary former Manger of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Tommy Lasorda once famously said, “he can’t hit water from a boat in the middle of a lake” forces them to do so.
Some will have their expectations fulfilled, many more will not. How they deal with that realization often determines the rest of their lives. Some will be judged to have not met their team’s expectations and be sent back to the minors or released. Some of those will feel they did and were thus unfairly judged. They could be right for it is a sport of opinion. Some try to make it a science, but it is not. It is a microcosm of life, which is not a sport or a science either. We expect and we judge as a result every day. Some do it badly, some expect more than they should and then judge harshly or poorly. The lucky ones take on life and it’s relationships with so few expectations of others they are rarely disappointed.
Baseball players are no different. Many come to camp with great expectations, play badly, and judge themselves or others poorly. Others have the same expectations but greater talent and a joy of being allowed to continue to play a child’s game in their thirties and have someone pay them to do it. They play hard, never feel the pressure, and smile at the same time.
The fun of the spring is not to see which teams will succeed and fail, but have moments etched into one’s mind. It is why you watch the games. If all you want to know is who won or lost there is no need to go.
Every year there are moments and feats that stand out, some humorous, some sad, and some well above the skill level of the individuals who perform them.
On a spring day in 2000, an extraordinarily talented man as a hitter and first baseman named Mo Vaughn, who played many years for Boston, two for the Los Angeles Angels and then went on to his home town New York Mets was playing in a meaningless game. For reasons known only to Mo, he decided to advance from first base to third on a single to right field. As he lumbered around second base, the third base coach threw his hands up in the universal signal for the runner to stop. Mo, with bulldog tenacity and not a thought about what the coach was commanding, continued his now nearly slow motion advance towards third. About three quarters of the way there, he seemed to realize that it was going to take something herculean to get there safely. He did what he had to do. He slid. Not in the convention way either. No, for Mo, this was too important. He dove at the base headfirst.
As Mo tried to do what the Book of Baseball says one can do, given average speed and an outfielder with an average arm, he had several problems. First, he weighed something north of 275 pounds. Second, on his best day, with a following wind, he could achieve the speed of a man single handedly delivering a piano. Finally, he began his slide about ten feet sooner than he should and despite the weight he carried, inertia was not his friend. He stopped short of the base by nearly five feet in a great cloud of dust. As he tried valiantly to wiggle the rest of the way as a one would under barbed wire, the throw arrived and Mo was tagged while still supine and three feet short of his goal. The umpire never raised his arm. He merely shook his head. I will never know why Mo did it. It would never show up in a box score, but for those of us who watched, it may have been the highlight of the game. Mo Vaughn now is out of baseball, a successful entrepreneur who rehabilitates public housing projects in his home town of New York City.
Five years ago a horrible San Diego Padre team brought a young catcher to camp by the name of Kristopher “Colt” Morgan. He had played one season in the single A minors, but was, as the biggest dreamers are known “a non-roster invitee,” to the major league camp. He had played well enough his first year to get a look from a team that had nothing else to look at except the fellow who had been inadequate the previous year. As the sun was fading one afternoon in March, and fans were already headed for the exits, he was announced as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning with his team down by three and two men on base. Most of those leaving stopped to see what would happen. He hit a high fastball over the left field wall. The Padres would lose more than 90 of their 164 games that year. Colt Morton would spend ten days with them and get his first Major League hit on May 8th and be sent to AA San Antonio on May 9th, where he likely belonged. Yet what he did in Peoria Arizona that afternoon for the 4,000 that saw it was perhaps the highlight of the Padres’ horrid year. For Colt, it may have been the highlight of his Padre career. Colt Morgan is now in the minor league system of the Seattle Mariners.
Three years ago, a young man in the camp of the Texas Rangers, Chad Tracy another minor league non-roster player, pinch-hit against the big leaguers from Colorado. He hit a home run with the bases loaded to win the game in the final inning. His Mother was in the stands, and his father, Jim Tracy, was a coach for the opposing team. When the field cleared, he embraced them both. Jim, Chad’s father became the manager of the Rockies later that year and last year Chad was an outfielder at AAA Oklahoma City. He has been invited back to camp again this week where his expectation will be to make the roster of the defending American League Champions.
Regular readers may remember Wyatt Toregas from last spring, a catcher for the Cleveland Indians who, we were told, would either be the Opening Day catcher for the Indians, or start for the AAA franchise in Columbus and teach the perhaps more talented young catcher there enough skills to move up to the “show” by mid season. He learned in his last week of work in the desert that he would go to Columbus. He has not played a Major League game since. After a month in Columbus he was sent to the AA Akron Aeros, an assignment that may have been clear to management but never was to Wyatt. It may have had something to do with the fact that his batting average was a mere .196 at the time. He was released outright in October. The great expectations he had when he reported in February of 2010 of being one of starting nine men on the field for Opening Day turn to dust in six weeks. The very fine print in the newspaper a few weeks ago, informs us that he has signed a minor league contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates and continues to chase his dream.
Spring Training is where an overweight veteran tries to take an extra base and there is humor in seeing him fail. It is where a kid catcher, a year out of Virginia Poly Tech gets a chance to tie a ball game, the son of a Major League Manager gets the hit every player dreams of and hopes now that this year will be the one. It is also where a young man once a top prospect of the woeful Indians, gets released because, while he can catch, he can’t yet hit the curve ball.
The beauty of the spring games is that there is a world of possibilities and they are both good and bad. In a month, when I will sit a score a week of games in Arizona, there will be a new moment, a new expectation, and a new memory to put with these.
It is why we watch the games.