Spring training is like watching baseball in a mirror; everything is backwards.
It’s not the big-name stars that matter.
They’re just going through the motions, playing an inning or two,
getting in a couple of at-bats, then jogging half heartedly in the outfield
like your uncle Harvey. No, it’s the guys who are battling for a position that
matter, the kids who are trying to impress, the utility player from the other
league who has signed a minor league contract and is trying to find a spot on
the bench, the high draft choice everyone is talking about.
And it’s not the end of the game that matters as it will in a few weeks in championship play when every managerial move will be scrutinized, every mistake magnified, when only the best get to play and you save your most effective pinch hitter, your finest fielder, your fastest pitcher for the very end of the game. No, it’s the beginning of the game that matters in spring training when your batters are facing their best pitchers and vice versa. The deeper you get into the game, the less important the players and the plays, the less heroic the heroics, the less catastrophic the catastrophes.
And it’s not the outcome that counts. The final score means very little. In fact, you can leave in the seventh, never know who wins, and miss nothing. It’s the opposite of the regular season when only the final score matters, when what is truly notable about Ernie Banks or Ron Santo or Fergie Jenkins is not their batting average or number of home runs, strikeouts or wins but that they never won nothin’.
In fact, spring training is not really baseball. It’s imitation baseball. It’s a bunch of people doing impressions of baseball. It’s that way in the stands, too. Hohokam Park in Mesa, Arizona, is a little Wrigley Field, with lots of blue caps, knots of people from Chicago’s near north side (there are Soba noodles available for them) and Arlington Heights and Des Moines (fried pork loin sandwiches are available for them), like members of some university club in a distant city, all reliving moments displaced not so much in time as in place. Even Ronnie Woo is there, the legendary and ageless Cubs fan dressed in blue pinstripes and warming up his “Cubs woo!” cry for the coming season.
And it’s that way under the stands, too. Concession workers aren’t cranky or jaded enough, ticket takers are too old and friendly, and the venders all seem to be practicing the best lines they’ve heard real venders use over the years: “Crackerjack! It ain’t a ballgame without Crackerjack!” and “Imported beer! Imported from the ‘frigerador.”
Beyond the outfield wall, there’s a green sloping lawn on which kids play tag, babies nap, families picnic, college boys drink beer and coeds work on their already impressive tans causing my cynical twenty-year-old son Griffin to note beneath his breath that the only thing Arizona State is number one in is STDs.
And as for the game, well, the Reds hit a homerun and then the Cubs, and later there is a double play, I think.
No, the real fun of spring training is six blocks away at Fitch Park, “The Winter Home of the Chicago Cubs.” The players from the roster and the high minors are all at Hohokam or in Las Vegas playing a split squad game. The players at Fitch are the future, and it is there that we spend the morning before the Cubs/Reds game. There are four back to back fields there like pastures, and across them graze over a hundred young, blue cubs trying hard not to look callow or intimidated or too far from home, and many are very young and very far from home. There’s Wes Darvill, a six foot two inch, one hundred and seventy-five pound shortstop and fifth round draft pick out of Langley, British Columbia who hit .223 in the Arizona Instructional League and who at the age of eighteen looks an awful lot like he’s sixteen. There’s Hak Ju Lee, a promising young hitter from Jeonju, South Korea who along with four or five other of his countrymen cluster around their baby-faced translator until a Latino coach comes over to say in English, “Tell your guys thees: get out there and start luking for dobble plays.”
There’s a big, friendly kid named Bob Warner who clatters by in loud cleats, greets us as if we are coaches (we’re the only fans watching the workout which, by the way, you can just walk up to off the street, no charge) and clapping other guys on the butts and backs. There’s an old Anglo coach sitting on an upturned ball crate behind the mound calling out in Spanglish. There’s a gaggle of very young Dominican players looking a little lost and very much like the high school baseball team they should probably be. And here comes a couple of black players with Anglo Saxon names on their backs reminding us of Tori Hunter’s recent comments that Afro-Caribbean players are being courted and cultivated by baseball rather than Afro-Americans because they don’t have to go through the draft, are not subject to the same rules and regulations, and cost a lot less.
On the mound is a hard-throwing nineteen-year-old lefthander named Austin Kirk whom no one can get much of a bat on. After his session he shakes hands enthusiastically with his catcher and comes off the field stopping to talk Oklahoman to the Korean translator saying that so and so is taking him to eat Chinese tonight, and he can’t wait. But then he asks, “Now, they don’t eat dog, do they?”
“No, no,” says the translator. “They make good dishes with chicken and beef. You’ll like it.”
Griffin and I look at each other. It’s not just the foreign kids here who are far from home, nor are they the only ones who are seeing the larger world for the first time. We each make some notes, Griffin in his phone, I in my notebook.
“Almost game time,” I say.
“How long do you think it’ll take us to walk over there?”
“Don’t know. Fifteen minutes?”
“Wanta watch a little longer?”
-- Peter Ferry