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February 22, 2012
The Platoon Advantage
Springtime Can Kill You
Spring is here! Birds are singing, bees are buzzing, flowers are in bloom, and soon, ever so soon, horsehide will give leather a resounding smack. The long winter is over, Starks be damned, the frost retreats a little more every day, and soon, ever so soon, the crack of the bats will be heard all over America. Winter coats are going into storage, bears are stretching and yawning in their caves, and soon, ever so soon, my dears, baseball will be played again.
And I feel sour about the whole thing.
If you grew up in a place that has winter, spring is wonderful. The players heading south to Arizona and Florida has real meaning to an Idahoan who's been staring at frozen ground and hockey contests for the past who-knows-how-long-but-it-feels-like-years. All those birds and bees and flowers are just around the corner, so the associations that come with spring training overcome whatever negatives may ride tandem with training camp and exhibition baseball itself.
But me, I'm a Californian. I live in Los Angeles. Spring means nothing except a tad less rain. We've got highs in the 70s for the rest of this week, and it's been nearly that warm for ages now. The flowers never went away. I saw a bird eat a bee just yesterday. Kids are out on their bikes and throwing balls at the parks and trying to avoid $1000 fines for Frisbees at the beach. I have sympathy with you cold-landers—I spent nine years in Massachusetts and New York, so I've seen winters and snow and unending despair—but I'm in a new place now.
All of which is just to say that the only thing "PITCHERZ AND CATCHERSSSS!!!!" means to me is an endless pile of nonsense. Craig Calcaterra has done yeoman's work documenting all the breathlessly reported "best shape of his life" stories that never seem to die even though everybody involved, from the players to the beat writers to us fans, knows that they're utter nonsense. Sometimes a player can take a legitimate step forward that PECOTA, lacking a "BSOHL" variable (for now—Colin Wyers' underground lair is surely abustle with activity as we speak), can't account for because he finally stopped jamming In-n-Out Double Doubles down his throat, or because he worked out with Ahman Green, or because he started doing ballet. It might even be the case that these guys really do perform better as a population, but good luck trying to pick out whether Chris Davis will actually break out this year because of his BSOHL proclamation.
On top of the BSOHL stories, every spring brings a flood of new pitches, new approaches, new concentration, new children, new respect for god and country, and a general outpouring of shiny new newness that's really impossible to keep track of. Seemingly everyone has made some change in their lives, sometimes in baseball and frequently outside, that is supposed to bring a fresh sense of urgency, a restored confidence, a recently instilled calmness. This is all supposed to Mean Something, at the plate, on the mound, in the field, and ultimately, in the standings. Yet if everyone is in motion, what does it actually signify? No, all of this chaos mainly serves to distract from the fact that nothing is actually happening.
That's my core trouble with spring training—it's all pitcher's-fielding practice and bunting drills and defense and working together as a team and hitting the opposite way and conditioning and... oh, good gracious, my apologies, dear reader. I appear to have nodded off.
Nobody gets amped on PFP when they're players in high school or coaches in Little League, and there's no objective reason to be excited as a fan of professionals, either. Sure, pitchers have gloves on their hand today and they're Doing Stuff in full view of anyone who wants to wander by, but I'm not so starved for baseball that I'm going to faint from excitement over this weak facsimile of the game I grew up loving.
The worst of it is that sometimes events do occur, but they're never positive. The star pitcher comes up with an elbow injury on March 10. The shortstop, a solid contributor with hopes for a little more, tweaks his ankle early in camp and can't seem to get it on track thereafter. The bench coach gets pasted by a scary line drive. Injuries are a part of any sport, but they seem particularly pointless in spring. They're not even game-related most of the time—injuries sustained on the battlefield, as it were, carry some weight, some pride and glory. Injuries sustained on the batting practice field are stupid and make everyone feel lousy.
Of course, spring training does have games. Half of my Twitter friends are completely jazzed about the first MLB.tv airing of spring contest. I have no idea when that is because I completely do not understand. Take everything you read in the previous paragraphs, about drills and practice and Working On Things, and stuff it all into a pretend game where not a single person in a uniform, and precious few out, cares who wins or loses. You've got yourself a recipe, if you happen to be in Arizona or Florida, for getting wasted in the sun, chatting away with your friends and neighbors and random strangers sitting near you, all while athletic dudes half-assedly jog around on the field. What you most certainly don't have is compelling TV viewing, particularly with the weird behind-the-safety-net camera angles and distracted announcing that are the hallmarks of spring training broadcasts.
The essence of sport is competition. This is why betting inside baseball is such a sin: It undermines the integrity of the game far more than a big, old buff guy trying to get even more buff ever could. The closest you get to competition in the spring, though, is a 32-year-old journeyman trying to prove that he's better than a 23-year-old who's destined to be a journeyman himself; the goal of said competition is for the winner to sit on the big-league bench and get 150 plate appearances. Maybe you find this exciting. Fine. Maybe it is, except that the way these soon-to-be-anonymous ballers compete for that precious roster spot is not actually against each other in the way that we think of athletic competition. I might tune in to watch Eric Sogard and Adam Rosales run sprints against each other for the utility infielder job in Oakland. If you could have them hitting in parallel batting cages, with the winner determined by total velocity off the bat as tracked on the TV screen, you'd have appointment television. Do a “Top Chef” quick-fire, a sumo-wrestling match, a dance marathon. Any and all of these methods of determining who gets to be a major leaguer and who will soon be sampling (again) the delights of a Sacramento summer feel closer to a major-league baseball game than an exhibition contest ever can.
And if the games don't matter, how on earth could anyone think the stats do? With all of the caveats that come with spring stats, you'd think the scorecards of every game would be burned as soon as the last out was made, that game stories would be required to say things like, "Darren Ford hit the ball hard in two of his three at-bats, but the second time was against Brian Omogrosso, who wears number 71." But this isn't what happens at all! Instead, you get beat writers banging out the same old number soup as ever, except with even more rancid ingredients. "Anthony Rizzo is hitting .392!" "Bryan LaHair has 12 RBI in seven spring games!" I wish I could say, "Nobody cares!" and be convinced I was right, but shocking numbers of people apparently care. Fans care, though I can't get overly wound up about that—fans care about all sorts of silly things, like who used PEDs, who has a giant home-run dingle in center field, which team's GM cheats on his wife, and so on.
No, who I get upset at are the front-office types and coaches who quote spring training stats to the reporters in the first place. Maybe they're using the stats to actually evaluate the players and maybe they're not, but team public relations departments should take it on themselves to deny reporters access to irrelevant information. No spring homers, no RBI, no batting average when that average has been compiled against non-roster guys with uniform number 87 who I'm pretty sure I used to see playing in the adult leagues at Inwood Hill Park in New York. I hope you'll join me in judging harshly anyone who takes spring statistics as anything other than amusing trivia, in particular team personnel who are making actual roster decisions.
All of that said, I don't want you to think I'm a terrible person, so let me tell you: It's hardly my place to judge you, dear friends. You can have your fandom however you want to have your fandom, and if that includes watching endlessly dull games between players indistinguishable from the man down at the deli shot by sun-stroked cameramen, then more power to you. I'll be at the beach until the end of March.