Friday, February 13, 2015

When baseball season nears, Spring is on the way

Baseball reminds us every year that Spring is just around the corner  (wikipedia)
CHARLOTTE  Forget about the robins. Disregard Punxatawney Phil and the buds on the trees. You know spring is just around the corner when the Red Sox equipment truck leaves Boston and heads to Florida.

Perhaps this year, more than any other in recent memory, residents of the northeast and Midwest have their radar set on those delicious days of sunshine.

No other sport has anything that comes close to baseball’s Spring Training. Football begins during the dog days of summer and even the most avid fans don’t get excited until after Labor Day. Basketball is practically a year-round sport, but the entire season is played indoors.

Baseball, on the other hand, is an annual rite of spring. For six weeks, from mid-February until early April, Arizona and Florida come alive with the sounds of horsehide balls being smacked into the sky by bats made of northern white ash.

It is a time for optimism. Every team is undefeated. Games mean nothing, but competition is keen. Aging veterans may struggle to hang on to their careers for another season while youngsters in their late teens and early twenties try to unseat guys they once collected on bubble gum cards.

From the moment they lace up their cleats and hear the clackety-clack of their metal spikes upon the clubhouse floor, players feel a sense of renewal. But even that isn’t as special as that first magic step onto the field when the lush grass and the soft earth crunches beneath their feet. This is where they belong. They are home. Diamonds are a guy’s best friend.

For a truly unique holiday, there is nothing quite like Spring Training. Travelers can visit the Cactus League in Arizona or explore the Grapefruit League in Florida. Opt for tumbleweed or palm trees. Either way it’s a chance to get up close and personal with the stars and superstars of the game in a way that no other sport can offer.

Cathedral Rock in Sedona, Arizona  (wikipedia)
There are several ways for vacationers to experience Spring Training. In Arizona visitors can do day trips to the Grand Canyon or Sedona or get in some rounds of golf before taking in a game.

Florida offers deep sea fishing, the Everglades, swimming, golf and even an opportunity to visit the mouse that ate Orlando at Walt Disney World.

Games are played in the afternoon or at night and distances between parks are relatively short. With a schedule in hand and a little planning, fans can take in two games in a day and see four different teams play. It’s the ultimate doubleheader. Do that just twice and you could see 40% of the major league teams compete in just two days of baseball.

Whether you travel to Arizona or Florida, each state is home to 15 ball clubs and both leagues, American and National, have teams that train in each location. Logistically, Arizona is more compact, but Florida has the advantage of having most of its camps along both coasts.

Spring is that time of year when players are most accessible. Autographs are much easier to get than during the regular season. Most veterans only play four to six innings a game and, since Spring Training parks are small, it is convenient for fans to approach their favorite players.

In general, without the pressure of a regular season pennant races, most players tend to be more relaxed and available during Spring Training, especially if fans are polite and respectful in the knowledge that players, after all, are also working.

Baseball players are typically fun-loving people. The sport is designed that way. It suits the personalities of the men who play the game. Conscientious fans who understand the value of their role and the player’s need for personal space will be far more successful at gaining the attention of their favorite athletes than those who make obnoxious spectacles of themselves.

For a ball player Spring Training is, in many ways, a return to his roots. Games are played in parks rather than stadiums, just as they are in the minor leagues. Capacity is just a few thousand seats. Fans are frequently closer to the action than during the regular season.

Spring Training means going to the beach in March  (wikipedia)
For some, Spring Training is a perennial traveling adventure representing a new beginning. It is a time for short sleeves, Bermuda shorts, sunglasses and hot dogs.

For others it can be a nostalgic link to the past. Baseball thrives on folklore and tradition like no other sport. In many ways, regardless of the generation, baseball is a time machine back to a simpler, less complicated, day when life seemed more carefree. A time when little boys dreamed of being the next big league star and dads remember their own little boy dreams.

Still, others simply savor an early escape from winter’s final blustery breaths. They follow the sun to bask in the green of the grass, the brown of the dirt, the blue of the sky and to hear the crack of the bat.

When April comes, the boys of summer head north with sun tanned faces that remind everyone else of what lies ahead.

Forget about the robins. When you see Blue Jays and Cardinals and Orioles, that’s when you know it’s spring.