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March 5, 2012

Out of Left Field

The Art of Enjoying Spring Training

by Matthew Kory

Spring training is finally here, and we’re all so excited we can barely pay attention. Months and months have passed since ball met bat in anger with nothing for us to do but helplessly wade through pages and pages of nothingness (read: rumors) punctuated only by the occasional signing or trade, a small sip of water in the middle of the dry desert of the offseason. “Hey everyone, Nick Punto signed with Boston! Let’s streak through the Wal-Mart to celebrate!”

At first it’s a thrill to see the players put on their uniforms again and run drills. There really are only a few hundred things in life as interesting as watching grown men jog around the basepaths at half speed. To paraphrase the great Canadian songstress Sarah McLachlan, it’ll take your breath away, beat it senseless with an ax handle, steal its kidneys, then leave it for dead in an alleyway. But somehow, your breath will recover, aided by the excellence of the American medical system, and return to you. With your trusty breath by your side, you will stand gazing out over a practice field full of spitting, ball grabbing (either kind), and general malaise, and you’ll wonder how you ever let your breath out of your sight in the first place.

But it isn’t only the fans and players who get bored of the spring training routine. The media does too. How many times can you read articles like this?

NEW LAKE TITICACA, FL—Manager Joe Goatcabin had his Jacksonville Junkies out on the field practicing bunting and fielding drills this morning. The Junkies were worked for two hours on correct positioning and throwing to the proper base on cut-offs. One player would catch the ball and toss it to the cut-off man while 78 others tried to see who could look like they were paying attention and still successfully pick their nose. Said Coach Goatcabin,“We may be very bad this season, but, dagblurnit, we’re gonna know which base to overthrow.”

Newspapers aren’t the only media at fault, either. Nobody does freaking out over nothing like local news.

Grandfatherly Male Anchor: …so authorities are asking, if you see a man with a gun wearing a ski mask covered in blood, to please drop them an email at authorities@po-po.com.
Overly Attractive Female Anchor: That sure puts the ‘real’ in ‘serial murderer,’ huh?
Both: Ha ha ha!
Grandfatherly Male Anchor: And now to sports, where the local nine are back at it, right Rex Strongly?
Strongly: That sure is right, Anchor guy! As you can see from these actual pictures of actual players actually taken last year, the local nine are indeed back at it. In this one they’re throwing the ball! This one shows someone catching it. This one shows my dog, Snake, pooping on the lawn outside my motel! And here’s me standing in front of a picture of the spring training ballpark! And, look, this player is so afraid of the ball he just wants to barely poke it with a bat!
Older Grandfatherly Male Anchor: That looks like a bunting drill to me there, Rex.
Strongly: Sure thing! Absolutely! Well, great stuff, Rex. Thanks. And now to Tom with one more look at the weather!
Older Grandfatherly Male Anchor: Those are my lines, you idiot.

In fairness, there just isn’t that much to talk about. For instance, the big news out of Fort Myers where the Red Sox are “training” is that Bobby Valentine actually expects the team to do stuff. Like, other than golf. Shocking as that may sound, it must have been twice as shocking to the players who were asked to drill, run, and practice bunting. The latter so much so that star replacement player Carl Crawford’s return from wrist surgery was derailed when he hurt himself bunting too much. How’s that for starting out the season? Of course, it could have been worse for the Red Sox. Crawford could have not hurt himself bunting too much.

Over in Bradenton, FL, the Pirates were having bunting problems, too. But it wasn’t too many bunts that did in A.J. Burnett so much as one specific bunt. After four years in the American League, Burnett’s layin’-’em-down skills resembled my three-year-old son’s attempts at potty training. Most of the time things work out but, hey! How’d that get in his eye? Some might argue Burnett’s attempt to bunt with his eyeball was doomed as soon as his orbital bone failed to hold up its end of the bargain, but I’m going to lay the blame at the feet of a fatal design flaw inherent in the idea of face bunting.

The point of all of this is to say we pine and pine for spring training, but then it arrives and we get stories of players bunting too much. A wise person once said that when the Gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers. The Baseball Gods were in class and taking notes on that day.

There are four more weeks left of every major-league contest devolving into a Sally League game by the sixth inning, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy it, albeit in our own way. Here are five ways to avoid boredom during this month-long ramp-up to actual baseball.

1. Keep track of ridiculous injuries. These are great to pull out during conversations over breakfast a few months later.

You: These eggs are delicious, honey.
Wife: Thanks, dear. I’ve been cheating on you.
You: That reminds me of a story!

I just gave two good ones to you above, so that will help kick off the old ridiculous injury spreadsheet in style. Stay vigilant, because there’s more where that came from. If a rough ’n’ tumble ice hockey player can hurt himself eating pancakes, a bunch of baseball players milling around shagging fly balls on an actual grass field is a recipe for a Hindenburg-style disaster. And if, for some reason, nothing awful happens, there is always Nick Johnson, who is in Nationals camp, I assume sealed in a plexiglass tube to protect him from things. Please, I beg of you, keep the syrup away from Mr. Johnson’s tube.

2. Count the many different things that Jason Giambi can clog.

3. Collect esoteric spring training facts. Did you know the Off-Green Monster at the new Red Sox spring training facility, which is supposed to exactly replicate the dimensions of Fenway Park, is 40 feet high instead of 37 feet? That’ll slay ’em at Uncle Rich’s wedding, or at least clear out the table so you can steal everyone’s artisan soap wedding favors.

4. Make up mean jokes about the Houston Astros. You know, in case you’re at a, uh, different wedding. For example:

A) Federal agents were called this week when players noticed a mysterious white substance on the playing surface of Minute Maid Park. After a complete lab analysis, agents determined that the white substance unknown to players was home plate. It is unknown whether home plate is harmful, but practice resumed when agents in consultation with the coaching staff decided that the team would be unlikely to encounter the substance again.

B) Play along with Astros manager Brad Mills as he picks his Opening Day starting pitcher. His choices are as follows:

1) Wandy Rodriguez
2) Spanky McGee
3) President Abraham Lincoln
4) Chevy Chase dressed as Mr. Poon, from 1980s smash hit Fletch
5) A muskrat named Horatio

C) Unfortunately for us fans, the Astros are not scheduled to play themselves this season, a game that would surely rival the worst game in baseball history. Currently the worst game in baseball history took place in 1934, when the Akron Iron Lungs narrowly defeated the Scranton Asthmatics 1-0. The Iron Lungs scored the only run of the game when Asthmatics pitcher “Scrumptious” Sammy Dingleberry received the throw from the catcher, casually tossed the ball over his shoulder, suffered a heart attack, and died. As Dingleberry fell backwards off the mound, he landed hard on the ball, which became lodged in his rectum. At the time, if the ball physically entered the body of a player and remained there for a fortnight, the opposing team was awarded a single run.

5. Invent new player nicknames. What new season is complete without new nicknames? When I was young, my dad would make up names for me that followed a certain formula. That formula was “Mister” + “[whatever I didn’t want to do at that moment].” For example, if I didn’t want to come inside, I would be known as Mr. I Don’t Want To Come Inside. If I wanted to eat cat food under the table, well, you get the picture. This is especially applicable to baseball players. For example, Dustin Pedroia is Mr. Says Crazy Things On The Radio. Luke Scott Is Mr. Stabs Fish With Sticks. Jonathan Papelbon is Mr. Stabs Sticks With Fish Because He’s Crazy And He Doesn’t Really Understand Things. Albert Pujols is Mr. Leave An Entire Region For Dead. And so on.

In the end, there are many ways to make the organized boredom known as spring training interesting. But perhaps the best way to break the monotony is to count down the seconds to Opening Day. I have 1,965,600 seconds and counting.

Matthew Kory is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Matthew's other articles. You can contact Matthew by clicking here

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