March in Florida, Arizona a different ball game

Spring training was once where baseball players went to get the old body in shape for the 162 games that abuse it. Major leaguer players — much like Canadian football players — had winter jobs to subsidize the family budget, or at least pay the green fees in Florida or Arizona.

Some players reported looking as athletic as golfers, which was mostly un-athletic, but they had four weeks to re-shape their bodies before Opening Day. At the first spring training I covered, the Montreal Expos were based in Daytona Beach, a northern outpost on Florida’s Grapefruit League map. But Orlando (Minnesota) and Cocoa Beach (Houston) were reasonably close, so the long drives to southern Florida or across to the Gulf Coast numbered maybe a dozen.

A handful of fans from up north came to preview their favourite teams, to get a tan and to mingle with players. Crowds were small at these March exhibition games, tickets were cheap and players who didn’t play in them could be seen running inside the outfield fences as part of their fitness routine. The whole scene was ultra casual.

That was then, and now…

The major-league players at 30 spring training sites this month in Florida and Arizona (the home of the Cactus League), did not report to get in shape. They had winter programs to get them ready and if they didn’t, chances are they’ll be minor-league players by the Ides of March. Today’s fans plan spring training vacations, good tickets cost close to regular-season prices ($40-$60) and fitness routines are conducted in multi-millionaire-dollar facilities far from the view of spectators. The marketing emails start in May, nine months before the first exhibition game — I know, because we still get them after once going to a spring training game six years ago! Today’s players may still look like golfers — has anybody noticed how ripped pro golfers are these days? — and their only winter work was at “work”outs.

Spring training became big business as baseball became bigger business. The games are a down-sized production of the real games, with all the attractions and promotions you enjoy (?) during the regular season. In the Expos’ era, Dodgertown at Vero Beach was the gold standard, and nobody could imagine that divorce, ever. The Dodgers left Vero Beach for Arizona in 2008, and the Florida coastline from there to Miami is spring home to only five teams. In Arizona, all 15 Cactus League teams have Phoenix zip codes.

And casual is over.

Besides reporting rigidly fit, this year’s players have a month to adjust to significant rule changes by Opening Day. The bases are bigger so more of them can be stolen; reducing the distance between the bags is to encourage baserunners to steal more. The infielders are no longer “infielders”…they have to play their positions and not stray into the wrong area code or, worse yet, the outfield. A game’s two most active players — pitcher and batter — will have to pick up the pace; if time clocks don’t reduce time wastage, un-pitched balls and strikes will be their consequence.

Spring training has been around for 150 years and will likely last another 150. Just imagine what it’ll be like in 2173.