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Spring Training brings us back to normal

MLB.com @williamfleitch

If you have never been to Spring Training before, it likely seems to you like Fantasyland. The mythology of Spring Training is so powerful that one can conjure up its world without ever having been there. Close your eyes, and the sensations float right up to you. The crack of the bat. The pop of the glove. Freshly cut grass. Games of long-toss; the thwack of batting practice; coaches running drills, gnawing on sunflower seeds, surveying the boys, "Whadda we got this year?"

To see that Spring Training is here is to see that spring is coming, that baseball will be here soon, that the chill outside your office window will someday recede, that the sun will return again.

If you have never been to Spring Training before, it likely seems to you like Fantasyland. The mythology of Spring Training is so powerful that one can conjure up its world without ever having been there. Close your eyes, and the sensations float right up to you. The crack of the bat. The pop of the glove. Freshly cut grass. Games of long-toss; the thwack of batting practice; coaches running drills, gnawing on sunflower seeds, surveying the boys, "Whadda we got this year?"

To see that Spring Training is here is to see that spring is coming, that baseball will be here soon, that the chill outside your office window will someday recede, that the sun will return again.

Before I went to Spring Training for the first time, this is how I imagined Spring Training. It almost seemed like a forbidden place, allowing entry for the specifically chosen and the wealthy, a Valhalla behind a velvet rope that kept out the freezing riff-raff. You talked to friends who were headed to Spring Training like they'd been selected for a mission to the moon; you'll never go there, but at least you're glad someone you knew got to. It didn't seem a place regular people were allowed to go. You had to work in sports, you had to be wealthy or you had to be retired and living nearby anyway. It was for other people, the lucky few.

So as pitchers and catchers report this week, and Spring Training begins, and all the images of athletes in "the best shape of their life" flash across your various screens, I feel obliged to remind us all of a basic fact about Spring Training: It is not a magical place, where all your wounds are healed, where you can be young and free and warm again. It is not a gateway to a better world. It is not a machine that transports back to a simpler time. It's just Florida. It's just Arizona. It's just a bunch of guys stretching.

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

And this is good. This is better. This is what we should want it to be.

* * * * *

The first time I realized that Spring Training wasn't some mystical place -- and that that was perfectly fine -- was a few years ago, when I was watching the then-Florida Marlins host the New York Mets at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla. Roger Dean Stadium is a lovely place to watch a ballgame, not just the Spring Training home of the Marlins and Cardinals but also the regular-season home of a whopping four Minor League teams. (They also play World Baseball Classic qualifying games there; it was the first place you could see that Team Israel that everybody loved so much at the last Classic.)

 

But there is nothing mystical about Roger Dean Stadium. There are ads for chain restaurants and sports-memorabilia hucksters and local lawyers all over the outfield walls, and loud brash pink apartment complexes everywhere. You might think that "Roger Dean" must be some sort of civic hero, maybe a former mayor, or a decorated veteran, to have his name on such a prominent local institution, but nope: It's just a nearby car dealership. (In fact, the official name is now Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium, to alleviate any further confusion.) This isn't heaven: It's just Florida.

Video: Justice on things we'd like to learn this spring

But it wasn't the rampant consumerism that reminded me that perhaps I had inflated Spring Training beyond what it could reasonably withstand: I am in America, after all. It was the sixth inning, of what I believe was a 4-4 game. There were runners on second and third, two out, and a Mets player hit a deep fly ball into the gap between the left fielder and center fielder. Would either of them be able to get to the ball? Were the Mets about to take the lead? As the ball neared the wall, I saw both the left fielder and the center fielder slow down and pull up. Then a third figure appeared and started sprinting the opposite direction on the warning track. The ball, lonely, a little neglected, landed on the warning track, in between the three of them.

What happened? A Marlins pitcher had decided to get a little jogging in around the warning track while the game was going on. It was just his misfortune that a Met happened to hit a ball right at him while he was doing so. I turned to the man next to me in disbelief. 

"He was running around the warning track while the game was live?" I asked. 

The man, an older guy who lived down the road and never missed a game at Roger Dean, shrugged.

"They've been doing that all game," he said. "Gotta get your running in somehow. That's what they're here for."

That's what they're here for. That's what's important to remember about Spring Training. It is not a place for renewal, or a place to feel young again. It is just a place for baseball players to stretch and jog for a month. It is a way to get back in the swing of it all. Baseball players today are not like they were 40 years ago; they do not need to use this time to get into shape after slothful offseasons. If anything, they work out harder in the offseason than they do during the season. Look what the Cardinals' Tommy Pham has been doing all offseason:

🏃21.5 mph #cardinalnation #Phamtastic @adidasbaseball

A post shared by Tommy Pham (@tphamlv) on

That looks terrifying! And super hard! And more to the point: It's the sort of offseason regimen that most players do year-round now, making the "training" aspect of Spring Training mostly redundant. These players don't need to work themselves into shape. They're always in shape. The job now requires it.

But this redundancy reveals what Spring Training really is for, for both players and us, the fans. It is here to get us ready for baseball being a daily part of our lives again. Spring Training is banal, really, players goofing off and going through repetitive, mind-numbing drills, playing a few innings here or there as we crawl toward Opening Day. The thrill you have seeing all those pitchers and catchers reporting, that will fade in a couple of weeks, if not sooner. The first Spring Training game is on Feb. 21, and you'll love being able to see a real, live box score in your MLB At Bat app … but by the third inning, it will already start to feel normal and it will ease comfortably into the background again. Spring Training is for getting accustomed to our lives with baseball once more. It is ripped away from us after the World Series. It is abnormal to be without baseball games. They must be reintroduced slowly, and with care.

Video: Castrovince, Justice on exciting players in camp

That's what Spring Training brings to us: It brings us back to normal. That Spring Training games are laid back and unimportant and a little dull even at times isn't a problem; that's their whole point. The joy of baseball is that it is unhurried, that it unfolds on its own timeline, that it is always going on, wherever you are. They play baseball every day, and they play it everywhere. For half the year, there are baseball games, whenever and wherever you want them. Some will be unfathomably exciting; some will be long and droning; some, most, will just be a perfectly pleasant day at the ballpark.

That's the point. Spring Training can't live up to any sort of metaphysical transformational experience, and why would we want it to? It's just a place to see players a little closer than you usually get to, to watch some guys with strange numbers on their backs play catch, to occasionally be confused by a random bullpen guy running around the outfield when the ball's in play. When you get to Spring Training, all the mysticism falls away, and you realize that through it all, it turns out you're just at a normal old baseball game. Which is enough. Which is the point of all of this. Pitchers and catchers are reporting. Which means games are coming soon. Which means it's all about to be normal again. Which means it's all going to be OK.

Will Leitch is a columnist for MLB.com.