Why we love spring training

2/11/2013 - MLB

Indians pitcher Brian Anderson boarded the team bus at 8 a.m. for the two-hour drive to Vero Beach, Fla., for a spring training game in 2003. Thirty minutes into the trip, Anderson realized he had forgotten his hat, spikes and glove back in Winter Haven.

"I was running late that morning because I knew I was going to get to hit in the game, so I was looking for the really important things: batting gloves and a bat," Anderson said. "When we got to Vero, I was in full panic mode. I borrowed a car and went to a mall, but there wasn't one glove in the whole mall, but I found some adidas spikes. On the way back to the ballpark, I saw a Walmart. I thought, 'Hey, Walmart has everything tires produce. It must have a baseball glove.' I found one: $29.95, already broken in. It was a softball glove. A Wilson. It was awful.

"I borrowed someone's hat and pitched in the game. Of course, I got three comebackers to the mound, and I caught them all because my new glove was as big as a butterfly net; it made [Greg] Maddux's glove look small. That day reminded me of when I was 17 playing Legion ball. That is spring training to me."

And that's why it's so great. That's why it's our favorite time of year. It makes you feel young again, no matter how old you are, no matter how many times you have been -- and this will be my 32nd spring training.

It is a sign that the long, cold winter is nearly over and that sunshine and summer vacation is on the way. It is a time for optimism, a fresh start and hope. No one has lost a game, the rookies have so much promise, and the veterans believe it will be their best year.

Spring training is a fun time, a joyous time, and baseball needs some good news after a contentious shutout in the Hall of Fame voting and the latest PED stories.

It is baseball in its purest form -- a time for wind sprints, fundamentals, sliding practice, "B" games, split-squad games and simulated games on a back field when no one is watching. Millionaire players are humanized and humbled in spring training. They are not receiving enormous paychecks every two weeks, getting the same meal money as the rookie in his first big league camp. No one is exempt from the three-hour bus rides, playing on fields that aren't manicured to major league standards and facing anonymous Class A pitchers who throw really hard but have no idea where the ball is going. It is the one time of year that Justin Verlander and the 20-year-old are on equal ground. It is the one time of year when a player gets on the bus in uniform, just like in high school.

Only in spring training could then-Rays first baseman Carlos Pena make a mistake in a baserunning drill and justify it by quoting Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech. "My first baseman is quoting Dr. King," said Rays manager Joe Maddon. "I love it." Only in spring training could then-new ESPN analyst Terry Francona check into a Disney property hotel only to find out that the room was a cabin on a campsite. He slept in a bunk bed. He called a colleague and asked, "You want to go out later and make some s'mores?"

Only in spring training could this happen: One March in Winter Haven, Red Sox pitcher Dennis "Oil Can" Boyd rented several adult movies from a local video store. It was nearly time to break camp and head north when The Can was detained because he hadn't returned the movies. It was an issue, but the movies were eventually returned and Boyd was allowed to leave with the team -- but not before Chuck Waseleski, a statistical guy who worked for the Red Sox, named the whole episode "The Can Film Festival."

Only in spring training does pitcher Jeremy Guthrie, now with the Royals, ride his bike to work. "It was only five miles," he said of his daily ride last spring to the Rockies' facility.

"He pitched in a game in Scottsdale this spring, then got on his bike -- still in full uniform, with his glove on the handlebars -- and rode back to our facility," said Rockies right fielder Michael Cuddyer, laughing. "It was like a scene from 'The Sandlot.'"

Only in spring training do we hear complete detail of the stories from the winter. Last winter, Mets pitcher Jonathon Niese got a nose job, and as promised, former teammate Carlos Beltran paid the $10,000 cost. One winter, then-Rockies manager Clint Hurdle drove sled dogs in Alaska. Last winter, pitcher R.A. Dickey climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. Rays DH Luke Scott hunted wild pigs with a spear. Giants manager Bruce Bochy went skiing for the first time in his life. "I thought I could do it, I'm still somewhat athletic. But as it turns out, I'm not," he said with a smile. "I got on the ski lift, then I kind of slipped off, and the lift hit me in the back of the head. My gloves and skis and hat went flying. It looked like a yard sale. I didn't even try to ski after that. I went to the lodge and had a beer."

Only in spring training would Padres Chris Young and Will Venable pick teams for a free throw shooting tournament because both guys played basketball at Princeton. "That's as nervous as I've ever been for an athletic competition," Young said with a smile, "because I'm not a great free throw shooter, and my team was depending on me to be good."

Only in spring training would the Twins hold a bowling tournament behind the KFC in Fort Myers. "Joe Mauer would be high-fiving his teammates, guys he's never met in his life, after they rolled a strike," said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire.

Only in spring training could Jeff Stone get thrown out at all four bases in one game -- and only one of them was a force out (think about that). Only in spring training could Rockies pitcher David Lee, in an emergency, drive the team bus on a night trip and earn the nickname Diesel when he stopped the bus and announced, "We've got to get some diesel!"

Only in spring training would pitcher Tug McGraw spend St. Patrick's Day by having a beer in every Irish bar in Clearwater on his walk home from the Phillies facility. Only in spring training would a mischievous former manager (Francona) ambush a naive writer on live television, setting off a series of hilarious impersonations in virtually every camp. "Those fellas made you look really stupid this spring," one player said with a laugh. And only in spring training would ESPN analyst John Kruk randomly ask a colleague, "Did I ever tell you about the time I shot a deer in the hot tub?" And with Kruk, you have to ask, "Were you in the hot tub, was the deer in the hot tub, or were both of you in the hot tub?"

Only in spring training are hours taken for fundamentals. And drills. And conditioning.

"We're always inventing drills and conditioning programs in spring training," said former major league coach Rich Donnelly, now the manager of the Mets' Class A team in Brooklyn, N.Y. "Years ago, we'd do 10 jumping jacks, touch our toes twice, then play. Today, these strength and conditioning coaches are always coming up with new stuff: rubber bands, parachutes, cones. I just can't imagine Ted Williams going to spring training and running with a parachute on his back or Babe Ruth jumping over a bunch of cones."

It is a time to practice bunts, rundowns and cutoff plays, situations and drills that are very difficult to work on during the season; the repetition done in spring training usually has to last the entire season. In spring training 1971, the Senators were working on a rundown play, but there was confusion about the proper way to run it. An argument ensued between the players and coaches. "One of our coaches asked [manager] Ted [Williams] to settle the argument," said ex-Senators catcher Rick Stelmaszek. "Ted hated those drills anyway, but he dragged himself out of the dugout and listened to both sides screaming that their way was right. Finally, Ted had had enough. He said, '[----] it, let's hit.'"

It is a time of confusion because there are so many players in camp, some of them have to wear a number in the 80s, like a wide receiver. In 1980, Scott Meyer, a non-roster catcher with the A's, wore No. 100 because there were 100 players in camp. "We were training at the old Scottsdale Stadium, which had one field," said Mickey Morabito, the A's traveling secretary. "We had guys lined up 10 deep for drills. There was nowhere to go."

It is a time for the fans, especially kids. Families take vacations to spring training. Getting a player's autograph is easier because everything and everyone is more relaxed than during the regular season. Well, except for when the Red Sox and Yankees played for the first time in spring training 2004, their first meeting since Aaron Boone's home run had sent the Yankees to the World Series and sent the Red Sox home. Tickets were scalped for $500 for an exhibition game! Before the game, there was a fight in the parking lot at City of Palms Park in Fort Myers between a Yankee fan and a Red Sox fan -- both were women.

It is a time for afternoon golf, fishing, NCAA basketball pools and evenings at the track. It is a time to bend the rules in the name of fun. Singer Charley Pride used to work out with the Rangers every year. Singer Garth Brooks worked out with the Mets and Padres in separate years, and he even played in a few exhibition games. Only in spring training would Barry Bonds dress up as Paula Abdul in the Giants' spoof of "American Idol." Only in spring training would Billy Crystal, then 59, hit leadoff for the Yankees in an exhibition game -- and actually make contact against the Pirates' Paul Maholm.

It is a time to meet and bond with new teammates. In spring training 1999, Rickey Henderson of the Mets was reunited with first baseman John Olerud, who had been his teammate with the Blue Jays six years earlier. As most people know, Olerud had an aneurysm in college, which required brain surgery. So to protect his head, he was allowed to wear a helmet in the field. As the story goes, Henderson was talking to Olerud one day, noticed the helmet and said "You know, when I played in Toronto, we had a guy who wore a helmet."

"Rickey," said Olerud, "that was me."

In 2006, the Padres signed slugging catcher Mike Piazza, who met his new teammates in spring training. Some had played against him for years, but they didn't realize how strong he was. "We have this hand-squeeze strength test," said Bochy, manager of the Padres at the time. "A lot of guys can barely do it. Mike did it easily. It was like having Herman Munster in camp."

It is a time to meet the hot young prospects. Spring training 1985 was the first for Rangers reliever Mitch Williams, a Rule 5 player from the Padres. In his first throwing session against hitters, the first pitch he threw missed the batting cage and hit the tire on the outside of the cage. Williams hit veteran Alan Bannister with a pitch. The two veterans who were next in line to hit, Buddy Bell and Larry Parrish, refused to bat against Williams and were excused from batting practice. "That's OK," Williams later said. "I didn't want to kill one of my teammates in my first spring in a major league camp."

It is a time for cuts. Usually three or four times every spring, the manager has to call.

It is the only time of year when winning and losing, and the statistics of the game, are largely irrelevant. The Cubs went 7-20 in spring training 1984 and went on to win the National League East. The 2002 Orioles went 20-9 in spring training but lost 95 games during the regular season. There is an unconfirmed story that Yankees right fielder Lou Piniella purposely dropped a fly ball in extra innings of an exhibition game because everyone was tired and the Yankees wanted to go home more than they wanted to win.

Late in spring training 1984, Rangers outfielder Larry Parrish told his teammates to purposely make outs against Royals starter Paul Splittorff, who was nearing the end of a solid career but needed a good final start of spring training to make the team. If Splittorff had pitched well against the Rangers, Parrish figured, they would get to face him in the first month of the regular season and could light him up when the games counted.

It is a time for small towns in Florida and Arizona to come to life the day that pitchers and catchers report in February. Lakeland, Fla., has been home to Tigertown, and Joker Marchant Stadium, for nearly 70 years. The Pirates have trained in Bradenton, Fla., for nearly 50 years. The Marlins used to train in Viera, Fla. "It was so windy there," said Donnelly, "it was like training on the deck of an aircraft carrier."

The Reds trained for 10 years in Plant City, Fla. The clubhouse was located about 50 feet from a pond. One day, an enormous alligator emerged and stood motionless for 15 minutes before darting back into the water.

"They had to go get that rascal," said former Reds pitcher Jeff Brantley. "They sent some divers and got him out of that pond before he could eat one of the players."

My first spring training as a full-time beat writer was in 1982 in Pompano Beach, Fla. Beyond the left-field fence at Municipal Stadium was the airstrip where the Goodyear blimp was stationed. "I drove that blimp one day. That was the highlight of my spring training. Baseball was secondary to the blimp in Pompano Beach," said Donnelly, then a coach for the Rangers. "We drove it as low as we could go. We drove it over the team hotel once -- guys were on the deck drinking -- and were yelling at them from inside the blimp."

Twenty-five years ago, it was standard that teams would train their major league team at one site and their minor leaguers at another; sometimes they were three hours away. Now, teams have spectacular spring training complexes that house their major and minor league players, which is great for continuity. These new complexes have sensational playing fields, seating for nearly 10,000 fans and clubhouses that are much better and much more spacious than the clubhouses in some of the old-time ballparks in the major leagues.

Spring training has changed so much in the past 25 years, but to a baseball fan, especially in the Northeast, the four best words in the English language are "pitchers and catchers report." The pilgrimage to spring training is a special one for fans and players alike, though not like it used to be when players would sometimes drive as many as 3,000 miles to camp to get the full effect of going to spring training.

Former Marlins center fielder Chuck Carr drove 1,000 miles to the club's first spring training in 1993. He stopped at as many pool halls as he could find. "And I took a lot of people's money on the way," he said.

That spring, Carr kept his cue stick next to his glove in his locker.

Which brings us back to Brian Anderson, the hilarious left-hander who forgot his glove and spikes on the trip to Vero.

"I was a Nike guy, so I had to blacken out the adidas stripes on my spikes," said Anderson. "I was a Rawlings guy, so I had to blacken out the Wilson label on my new glove. I had violated every part of my contract. The next spring, this lady comes up to me with a picture of me to sign. I'm halfway through my windup, and it's a perfect shot of my blacked-out shoes and blacked-out glove. That story could only happen in spring training."