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Tuesday, March 7, 2006
Updated: March 8, 11:59 PM ET
Spring training is not the same this year

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The palm trees still rock in the spring-training breeze. The sunbathers still sprawl on the berms in Vero and Clearwater and St. Pete. It still looks like spring training, smells like spring training, feels like spring training.

The World Baseball Classic has left a void in camps around baseball.

But it's not the same.

Guess why.

The Red Sox lineup card appeared on the dugout wall Monday. Those household Red Sox names: Not on it. Leading off: Willie Harris. Hitting cleanup: Dustan Mohr. Starting in right field: No. 83 in your program, Luke Allen.

"I'm not going to sit here and bash the World Baseball Classic," said the manager who made out that card, Terry Francona. "The concept is awesome. But …"

If you've been paying attention, you know what he's thinking.

"But just because we have this tournament, I can't make Trot Nixon visit every town in Florida, or he'll blow his back out by Opening Day," Francona said. "There's a reason we lay out spring training like we do. Right now, guys are not supposed to be playing every day."

So managers all over spring training have to do what managers have to do. And when a manager has eight players off on active WBC duty (as the Red Sox do), and this is his team's sixth game in 72 hours (ditto), this is what he has to do.

The World Baseball Classic, on the other hand, is what Bud Selig had to do. And we're not here to bash it, either.

We understand it. We mostly like it. We hope it's everything it once appeared to be on Bud's drawing board.

But we like spring training, too. This is not the NFL "preseason." This is one of the special, magical phenomena in sports.

The games don't count. But spring training still matters. And any way you spin, shake or spray paint this thing, the WBC is messing with spring training.

It isn't destroying spring training. It isn't undermining spring training. You can make a case it isn't even overshadowing spring training.

But we'd better not hear anyone argue that the WBC is somehow helping spring training. If you do, the world your classic is being staged in obviously isn't the same world we live in.

It's almost two years now since MLB announced that the World Baseball Classic would be held in March. One of the first questions we asked -- without even consulting George Steinbrenner -- was: Won't that kill spring training?

The answer we got at the time, from MLB senior VP (and WBC organizer) Paul Archey, was: "We feel like the World Cup can more than just coexist with spring training. It can enhance it."

Sounded good. But is that how it's worked out? It sure doesn't feel that way when those lineup cards get taped to the wall.

There are two issues at work here. One is a fan issue. The second is a team-building issue. We don't pretend -- and no one in baseball should pretend -- that either of these is trivial or selfish.

Nearly 2.8 million people bought spring-training tickets last year. To games that didn't count. Swirl that one through your brain a minute. It's one of the most mind-blowing sporting facts you'll ever contemplate.

So what does baseball owe those people? That's a fundamental question, with an obvious answer.

It doesn't owe them the right to see every team's Opening-Day lineup every afternoon in March. But it owes those folks the right to see a lineup with at least one everyday player. And we've already attended two games this spring which featured zero everyday players in the road team's lineup.

That's not a catastrophe. But it's a lousy way to treat your customers.

Even if the customers kind of understand.

The day after Johnny Damon, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez left the Yankees' camp for active WBC duty, we approached a guy wearing a Jeter jersey at a Yankees game.

Let's just say he noticed that the lineup the previous day had featured those three men batting 1-2-3 -- "and today we show up and get Felix Escalona."

"But what are you going to do?" asked Jim Spinner, a 28-year-old chemist from Tampa who once lived in Albany. "It's Selig's little pet."

Spinner said he usually buys tickets to three or four Yankees games a spring. And WBC or no WBC, "we're going to buy tickets either way," he said. "We don't care."

He understands what spring training is. He understands he might not see Jeter play more than once, even in a normal spring. He understands that even if all nine starters play, they might be gone in the fourth inning. He even understands the upside of the WBC.

"I just think the timing's wrong," he said. "I don't know when the timing's right, but I think it's wrong now."

Yet the Yankees are the last team that ought to be posting signs over the ticket window, apologizing for who isn't there. Even Damon said, before departing: "They still have [Gary] Sheffield, [Jason] Giambi and [Hideki] Matsui. The Yankees will be all right."

But not every team is quite that all right. Nevertheless, we haven't seen or heard of one gesture that any of those teams, or MLB, has made to let fans know they've been short-changed in any way.

That's not the way we'd run a business. But no one has asked us for any tips in consumer relations.

Let's put aside that fan issue, though, and ponder how the WBC is affecting teams as they lurch through spring training.

Spring training is a journey. A journey that connects winter to summer. A journey that transports teams from their offseason blitz through the transactions column to the reality of Opening Day.

But what makes it succeed is that everyone takes that journey together. In any spring except this one, that is.

And as you look around this spring, you find some teams that are taking that journey with way too many empty seats -- and lockers.

The Orioles, for example, have a new pitching coach (Leo Mazzone), with some distinct ideas about how his staff should be run. But how does he implement those ideas when four of his five starting pitchers (everyone but Kris Benson) and his team's new starting catcher (Ramon Hernandez) are WBC-ing it?

"It was hard to leave," Hernandez said after reporting to Venezuela's camp. "I'm on a new team, and I know they didn't want me to leave. They want me to stay so I can work with the pitchers. But I've played the game a lot of years. I've been with more than one team. I was with Oakland and then San Diego and now here. So I have an idea how to learn new pitchers. Hopefully, it won't take me that long."

Hernandez wants to believe that. And needs to believe that. Because he was not going to turn down this chance to play for his country, not when "you never know if that's going to happen again."

He probably won't even catch an inning in this tournament -- for a team with lots of catchers but no first basemen. And you know the Orioles love that, too. But this was the position he was placed in, the choice he had to make. And it was no choice at all.

"For us in Venezuela," Hernandez said, "we have pride in our country. So we want to represent our country, no matter what time of year."

That's not a sentiment many American players share. But one who did was another catcher with new pitchers to learn -- Boston's Jason Varitek.

There is no more conscientious student in shin guards alive than Varitek. So he showed up in spring training having learned as much about Josh Beckett, Julian Tavarez, Rudy Seanez and David Riske as it was possible to learn without ever catching them.

But by the time the games started, Varitek was gone. So the Red Sox promised someone would call him after every game those guys pitch this spring -- "just to keep him in the loop," Francona said.

"I think he feels divided," said the manager. "He gives so much of himself -- almost too much of himself. … But he was excited to represent the United States."

So he'll represent the United States. Which is great. But the team he left behind feels his absence. And David Ortiz's absence. And even the absence of people like Mike Timlin, Alex Cora and Lenny DiNardo.

"Our camp's different," Francona said. "Our responsibility is to allow these players to play [in the WBC]. But not having them -- it's quiet. When David Ortiz walks into the room, he lights it up. So we not only miss his bat, we miss his presence. When we go places, we're not the Red Sox yet. But the good news is, we will be."

Oh, they will be -- if only because that's what it says on their shirts, and moving them to, say, Salt Lake City probably wouldn't be a real popular idea. But they also need to be the Red Sox in more than name only. And spring training ought to be a pivotal part of that.

But will it be? Can it be? This is a team trying to find, and shape, its new personality after the exits of Damon, Kevin Millar and Bill Mueller. Spring training normally works as a bonding experience for teams like this. But you can't bond with people who aren't around to bond back. Ever noticed that?

The funny thing is that the team that has complained the most about the WBC -- the Yankees -- actually might have its bonding process helped by this event.

"I'm going out there with Jeter and A-Rod," Damon said. "So we'll get to hang out quite a bit. I think we'll even hit 1-2-3, like we would here. So I'm not that worried about it. I think I can bond with anybody, to be honest with you."

But can he finish bonding with the rest of his teammates in the last 10 days of the spring, after he gets back?

Can guys like Varitek and Hernandez finish learning all they need to know about their pitchers in those 10 days?

Can Bud Selig click his heels, send everybody back to Kansas and make everything feel normal again in those last 10 days?

Hey, who knows? Nobody knows. Not even the staff at the Psychics Hotline.

But we already know this:

The March baseball event that used to matter most -- that still matters most to people flowing through the gates and people flipping the newspaper pages back home -- almost has been placed in competition with an event that shouldn't have to compete for anyone's attention. The WBC deserves its own spotlight. But so does spring training.

In our travels this spring, we've found that feeling to be nearly unanimous. We just hope someone at Major League Baseball is paying attention, because its customers and its players and its employees matter every bit as much as the World Baseball Classic.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.