Tales of Spring Training

Just a 90 minute flight from Ontario, Baseball Mecca awaits. (Or a 25 hour ride if you're like me and feel like getting there via Vail, Colorado--but hey, who's keeping track?) Within 100 miles of Phoenix, 15 Major League teams play their preseason games during the month of March.

First-- the sunny city of Surprise, spring home of the Kansas City Royals Texas Rangers (full disclaimer: big time Ranger fan here) and the first of three games I would see over spring break. My friend and I arrived in the middle innings, having already missed Vlad Guerrero and Michael Young's hacks for the day, and had to endure rough outings by non-roster pitchers Luis Mendoza and Pedro Strop. A 12-2 Rangers beating at the hands of the Cleveland Indians was well in-hand, but this little mental checklist helped.

  • 75 degrees -- CHECK
  • Not a cloud in the sky -- CHECK
  • Ballpark dog in hand (well, not the dog itself, rather the bun with the dog in it) -- CHECK
  • Buddy next to me ready to talk about the insignificant players on the field and their fantasy baseball value -- CHECK

(Speaking of which, want to join a free fantasy league with a chance to win a free t-shirt and your own 90-second rant on anything sports related on Claremont's very own sports talk show, "The Nightcap"? Click here. League ID# 564908, Password: kspc OR email me @ nathansbarnett @ gmail.com)

How much can I complain? Things only improved when I saw Chris Perez, I mean Kenny Powers, warming up in the Indian Pen (Don't believe me? Check the pictures below). Sure he was pitching for the "enemy," but I was as excited to see him as any Ranger that day.

The Rangers would go 0-3 while I was in the desert, dropping from 6-8 to 6-11 and now sit at a Cactus League worst 6-14 with 9 games remaining. It's important to remember that Kansas City finished fourth in the Cactus League last year though. KC 2009 regular season result? An American League worst 65-97.

Spring Training results don't really matter--at least not the results that show up in the win and loss columns. Would I be saying the same thing if the Rangers were 14-6 instead of 6-14? Probably not, but it's important to remember what really matters in March in Arizona (and Florida, where the other half of the teams play their preseason ball).

For the average fan it's a warm-up, both for the players and for themselves. Guys like Derek Jeter, Albert Pujols, and Ichiro-- these guys are getting their timing back, getting ready for big league games, and remembering what it feels like out on the field after four months off. Players swing at pitches they wouldn't swing at in the regular season because they are working on fundamentals. Guys like Josh Hamilton, who hits some of the longest home runs anyone has seen, bunt the ball. For the fans, a spring game can remind them of their favorite baseball superstitions: watching for the players not to touch the chalk of the foul lines, not to talk about a no hitter, etc. It is a time to remember you need to wear sunscreen at the park. It is even a good place to work on the heckling skills; I know the Padres' fans I saw Sunday could use some practice after hearing cunning jeers like "Swing and miss, batter!"

But to the 25th man on the roster, the 5th starter, the 7th man in the bullpen, and all the guys below the Major League level, which numbers over 100 players, spring training is everything. As a fan, I cannot recommend more trying to soak in that feeling. It may be thrilling to see your favorite stars up at the plate when you haven't seen them swing since October, but the real drama is in the routine grounders, the sacrifice bunts, the stolen bases, and the induced ground outs from guys most fans haven't heard of. Outside of the local beat writers and die-hard fans like myself, most people won't make a big deal out of a throwing error like the one Rangers utility candidate Matt Brown made and they wont fuss over the laced single Rule-5 draft pick Travis Snyder gave up to Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, nor will they gawk over the forty or so minor league pitchers I saw gathered together on the Rangers back fields, but these are the things that really matter in the spring. These are the things that decide whether a player finally gets his big league shot, if his time in "The Show" is over, and if the organization even has the desire to keep him around.

March is their October. It is their baseball lives. Their chance to survive, thrive, and impress. For 16-year-olds like Dominican Ranger prospects and million-dollar-signees Jurickson Profar and Jorge Alfaro, March is the time to soak up the knowledge of the players they idolize as much as the fans do. There is something uniquely beautiful about capturing this feeling of intensity in a sea of relaxed people who think nothing is on the line. All of this doesn't make it any less cool to see known quantities like up-and-coming young Derek Holland warm up in the pen before trotting out to hill. But it does make losses like the three I saw that much easier to stomach.

Editor’s Note: This sports column is a regular feature from “The Nightcap” crew,  made up of Ari Zyskind, Nathan Barnett, Dan Campbell, and Kevin Shuai, a group of 5Cers who air a weekly radio sports talk show on KSPC. You can listen in online at KSPCstream.com or KSPC.org (click “Hear us Online via Live365”) every Monday from 8-10 PM.