Spring training is two weeks away.
With the calendar turning to February, you can feel the excitement among baseball fans. Maybe you can hear their hands rubbing together with anticipation. Winter is that much closer to being over.
Pitchers and catchers will be reporting very soon. Baseballs will be popping into leather mitts. Groups of players will be jogging together, almost like a flock of birds flying in formation. Close your eyes and you can feel the warmth of the sun, smell the scent of sunscreen in the heat.
Do fans of other sports have such feelings about the preseason beginning? In August, do football fans daydream about roasting under summer heat, watching their favorite players run around without pads while coaches scream and blow whistles at them?
Perhaps a few do. But I've never heard or read of them eagerly anticipating practices or driving off to training camp locations with any sort of affection.
That is among the many reasons why spring training is the best preseason in sports. Here are a few others.
Location, Location, Location
Spring training allows baseball fans to travel Florida or Arizona in February and March, when it's still frigid in most parts of the country.
While your friends and family are back home bundled up in sweaters and jeans, scraping ice off their windshields and hearing the crack of rock salt underneath their shoes wherever they walk, spring training observers are thawing underneath the sun.
Instead of looking at yellowed grass underneath grey chunks of snow that just won't go away, Grapefruit and Cactus League play allows fans to see lush green fields while letting sunlight warm the arms and legs exposed by T-shirts and shorts.
The point is, spring training offers baseball fans a vacation. It's an escape from your daily routine, a break from the grind of work and home. These workouts and games are destinations.
In Florida, baseball teams hold their preseason camps in places like Kissimmee, Clearwater, Sarasota and Port St. Lucie. Those towns just sound warm and tropical.
In Arizona, the spring training complexes have names like Surprise Stadium, Camelback Ranch and Salt River Fields. It sounds as if it's possible to do so much more than watch a ballgame and drink a beer in those places; maybe you can play golf or get a spa treatment while you're at the game!
(OK, you can't. But it sounds like you could.)
With no offense and all apologies intended to the residents and municipalities of Owings Mills, Md.; Allen Park, Mich.; Anderson, Ind.; and Renton, Wash., but do those places offer much for fans after they're done watching NFL linebackers hit tackling sleds and wide receivers run rope ladder drills in scorching 95-degree heat with humidity?
(I will admit that my perception of Spartanburg, S.C., where the Carolina Panthers hold their training camp, is heavily influenced by encountering the worst gas station bathroom I have ever seen in all my years on this planet earth while passing through on the way to Charleston.)
Some NFL teams don't even try to give their fans something different, holding their training camps in the same cities where they play. Yes, I'm talking about you, Cincinnati Bengals, Houston Texans, Tennessee Titans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Jacksonville Jaguars.
Going to spring training doesn't necessarily mean just seeing your favorite team in action. With all 30 MLB teams in either Florida or Arizona, each complex is within driving distance of another. (In some cases, that could be a full day's drive, but it's still a possibility.)
Set up residence in Lakeland to see the Tigers, then drive to Tampa to watch the Yankees. Go over to the Phillies' camp in Clearwater and you're already on the way to Dunedin, where the Blue Jays train. Some other day, you could drive east to watch the Braves and Astros in Kissimmee.
In Arizona, you can see more than one team in the same complex.
The Rangers and Royals train at Surprise Stadium. The Dodgers and White Sox share Camelback Ranch. Check out the Padres and Mariners in Peoria. Go to Goodyear, and see the Indians and Reds work out and play. Also make a stop at Salt River Fields, where the Diamondbacks and Rockies will be.
If you're a hockey fan, you have to go to Traverse City, Mich., to watch the Detroit Red Wings train. Driving to Toronto to see the Maple Leafs next is quite a hike. Chicago and Columbus aren't very close by either.
For football, no one is driving to different training camps unless you're Sports Illustrated's Peter King. At least he can say he's getting paid for it. King gets to write about the various coffee shops he's stopped in along the way, too.
That's a pretty good gig. Watching the Eagles train in Bethlehem, Pa., then driving to see the Steelers in Latrobe isn't as nice of a gig for fans.
Meet the Players
I realize that fans can meet players, get autographs and pose for pictures at virtually every training camp in all of the professional team sports.
Teams might also hold fan events near their training areas, giving people an opportunity to see players, coaches and executives. You can probably meet some cheerleaders too. It's all fun and can help develop permanent bonds with fans—especially young ones.
But I think it's different in baseball.
There are fewer barriers between players and fans. As a slower game, everyone is more relaxed and willing to chat during spring training. You can stand at a fence and talk to your favorite player while he's warming up or stretching.
If you're a fan of The West Wing, maybe you remember a scene from the episode "The Stackhouse Filibuster," in which one of the characters, Josh Lyman, talks about wanting to get away so he can watch the Mets in spring training:
JOSH I'm going to Port Saint Lucie, which may not mean anything to you, but happens to be the spring training home of the... C.J. New York Jets. Yes, you've told me. Josh, you can watch basketball on T.V. JOSH Yes, except the New York Knicks are a basketball team, the New York Jets are a football team, and Port Saint Lucie is the spring training home of the New York... C.J. (exasperated) Mets! Yes. Dammit, I'm inadequate. [snip] JOSH A weekend at spring training. Mike Piazza is going to be standing in the batting cage.(strikes a batting pose) He's going to turn and see me. He's going to say, 'Dude.' C.J. Well, I wouldn't want you to miss a legitimate 'dude' sighting. JOSH (excited) So I can take off? C.J. No.
Would such a scene be written with a character eager to escape from work so he can watch an NFL or NBA training camp? No, because spring training is a destination. And Lyman knows he'll be able to meet one of his sporting heroes while he's there.
That one scene sums up every reason why MLB spring training has the best preseason of all the professional team sports.
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