Dog sleds, magic tricks and autographs: What spring training is and what it won’t be now

  • Senior writer ESPN Magazine/ESPN.com
  • Analyst/reporter ESPN television
  • Has covered baseball since 1981

Spring training has arrived. It might sound cliché, even corny, but for those who love baseball, these are the best four words in the English language:

Pitchers and catchers report.

Spring training signals that winter and cold weather soon will be gone, ahead is sunshine, warmth, hope, grass as green as a highway sign and road trips to and across Florida and Arizona. It means school will be out before long, summer vacations will commence and the wonderful rhythm of a baseball season will begin.

And yet, right now, it doesn’t feel like right. It doesn’t feel like spring training. Mostly because of COVID-19, which makes many inside and outside the sport wonder if we should even be starting spring training until life is safer, until more vaccines can be administered. There’s a concern among baseball executives, and those in uniform, that before we even get to the exhibition games in March, there will be so many positive tests that the sport will have to be paused. You can pause basketball, and the second it starts up again, Steph Curry is going to be knocking down a ridiculous 3 drifting to his left.

You pause baseball, as we learned last spring training, you have to start all over again.

“It’s my favorite time of the year, but it’s not going to be as much fun, and I don’t think it’s bad to acknowledge that,” Indians manager Tito Francona said. “Sitting around in the morning, having coffee with the coaches, talking about the first-to-third play, the bunt plays, seeing all the players that you haven’t seen all winter. I love that. But I think it’s going to be even more different than people realize. It’s going to be a challenge. I am worried about the potential starts and stops.”

There are the warnings and realism of Red Sox manager Alex Cora: “It’s going to be different, very different. We’re going to try to play 20 to 30 games following every guideline and protocol. It is going to require a lot of discipline. It’s still baseball and it’s still fun, but we have to understand that, some days, it’s not going to be fun. There will be obstacles. Everyone has to be in the right frame of mind. The biggest obstacle is sticking to the guidelines, being together and not being selfish. We are blessed that we get to play this game during a pandemic, but if you are selfish at home and then bring that to your extended family at the ballpark, it won’t work.”

There is the understanding of Rays infielder Brandon Lowe: “I think it’s going to take some getting used to, but I am comfortable that if we follow the protocols like we did last year, we are going to be OK. The worst-case scenario would be if we stopped spring training like we did last year. That would be terrible. But we saw that football played a whole season. Hopefully, that will to happen with us. I’m not a worst-case scenario guy; I think we’re going to be fine.”

And there is the optimism and hope of Giants outfielder Mike Yastrzemski, who said: “What we went through last year is going to help a lot this spring. We were close to having the game taken away from us. We learned again how much we love it, and how much we need it in our lives. We are going to spring training. We still have an opportunity to do what we wanted to do as little kids. You can’t beat that.”

Fans will be limited, crowd size way down, their freedom of movement restricted, which will be shatteringly sad. It is a rite of spring for fans, often with their children at their side, to wander through the fields of their team’s complex, watch the kid who shined the year before in Class A, maybe get a player’s autograph as he runs from batting practice to infield work. Last spring, at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, thousands showed to see Gerrit Cole’s first BP session.

There are few things better than a gorgeous Saturday afternoon in Scottsdale after the Giants just finished a game in their absurdly charming little downtown ballpark. Spring training won’t be the same without fans eating a picnic lunch on a blanket on a hill beyond the center-field fence.

“I love the fans in spring training,” Francona said. “I love walking down the foul line before games, meeting people and signing autographs.”

“Spring training is my favorite time of year,” Diamondbacks catcher Stephen Vogt said. “There is a buzz in the air. Every team feels like it has a chance to win the World Series. The fans feel that, too. You can’t replicate that.”

Not all the players will be in spring training, which isn’t entirely the fault of COVID-19. The Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) and the owners have had a contentious offseason, which is nothing new. But this isn’t the time for petty fighting and arranging bargain chips for Dec. 1 when the collective bargaining agreement expires. This is a time for complete collaboration between the sides to pull off spring training — and a 162-game season — in the midst of a pandemic.

More than 100 free agents, most of them deserving of a major league contract, will be sitting at home when spring training begins. Some of the names: Jackie Bradley Jr., Trevor Rosenthal and Jake Odorizzi. There is no money left for them, say the owners — or, say the owners, they are asking for too much money.

Spring training is supposed to be a time to leave the offseason behind, to talk about the contact play, not a contract play. It’s a time to concentrate on who’s in camp. Sadly, too much time will be spent on who’s not in camp.

“That worries me a lot,” Vogt said. “It’s not right. Quality players still don’t have a team. Teams are not ready.”

Not everyone is as concerned.

“I’m not worried,” Cora said. “We’ve been through something similar, in 2017-18. It sucks that it’s a trend, but it is. But big leaguers are big leaguers. And I’m sure that by Opening Day, the big leaguers will be in the big leagues.”

Most of the media won’t be there, including me. No sympathy wanted or required, but this will be the first time in 41 years that I won’t go to spring training. Most of us will cover it from a great distance, via Zoom. That’s not the same as sidling up next to a manager at the batting cage and casually asking “How was your winter? Did you do anything fun?” and having then-Rockies manager Clint Hurdle say this: “I drove a team of sled dogs in Alaska.”

Or then-Giants manager Bruce Bochy: “I tried skiing. I thought I could do it, I’m still somewhat athletic. As it turns out, I’m not. I got on the ski lift, then I kind of slipped off, and the lift hit me in the back of the head. My gloves and skis and hat went flying. It looked like a yard sale. I didn’t try to ski after that. I went to the lodge and had a beer.”

For baseball writers who are there, it will be strange and unsatisfying to cover spring training from the press box or in a roped-off section of the stands. Spring training coverage is about wandering around a back field as three guys take some swings. It’s about attending a “B” game at 9 a.m., which I did in 1986, prompting Orioles manager Earl Weaver to ask this: “What are you doing here? What is wrong with you? Don’t you have anything else to do with life?”

Spring training is about watching a simulated game when a young pitcher faces his veteran teammates for the first time. In spring training 1984, in the first live batting practice in the first major league camp for Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams, he threw one pitch that missed the entire batting cage, hitting a tire on the side of the cage. Then he hit Alan Bannister with a pitch. Rangers veterans Buddy Bell and Larry Parrish refused to hit against Williams.

“It’s OK,” Williams said. “I didn’t want to kill a teammate in my first spring in big league camp.”

Spring training is when you meet players for the first time, so when they make their major league debut in September, you have a working knowledge of who they are. The first time I met Royce Lewis, a young shortstop in the Twins’ system, he came rolling into the clubhouse at 8 a.m. on a skateboard. The first time I met Rangers outfielder Mickey Rivers in spring training 1982, he F-bombed me for no reason, then walked away. He quickly became one of the guys I loved to talk to. Three weeks into that spring training, the Mick, who was making $450,000 a year, asked me if he could borrow $2,000.

“Mick,” I said, “I make $14,000 a year. I don’t have $2,000.”

Spring training is when players meet new teammates and really get to know them. In Michael Cuddyer’s first big league camp with the Twins, he ingratiated himself to his teammates by showing a table of veterans, including star center fielder Kirby Puckett, a magic trick. Cuddyer so dazzled the group he immediately became one of the guys. Years later, Cuddyer did a spectacular magic trick for new teammate Luis Castillo. Castillo was so spooked, the next day, he moved his locker to get farther way from Cuddyer.

Spring training means some players happily attach a microphone to their jerseys. Two years ago, Mookie Betts, while playing right field, told us about changing diapers and showed us his golf swing. He yelled as he chased a ball into the right-field corner: “I ain’t getting to that one, fellas.”

Last spring, Freddie Freeman took off from first base on a high pop-up to left-center field and screamed “It’s in the wind! It’s in the wind!’. Oh, the wind took it. Freeman scored from first on a 150-foot pop-up, slid across the plate, raised his arms and pointed joyously toward the broadcast booth at ex-teammate Chipper Jones, who was in tears laughing.

Spring training means bus trips to games, often fully dressed, a ritual that humanizes and humbles the players, taking them back to their roots.

In 1999, Rockies pitcher David Lee earned the nickname “Diesel.” On one long bus trip in spring training, the bus driver got sick, so David Lee offered to drive. After about a hundred miles, he pulled into a gas station and announced to the team that “We have to get some diesel!”

Players often stay in hotels in spring training; not all of them stay in opulent places on the beach or a golf course. Mets first baseman Pete Alonso, the spring after hitting 53 home runs, stayed in the team hotel. One day we did a ride-along with him to the ballpark. We got to the hotel and he was walking his little dog, Brodie, in the parking lot at 5:30 a.m. We drove to the ballpark together, stopped for his complicated coffee order. He gave us a sample of his homemade deer jerky.

“It’s better than the hot links that you’ll get at the gas station,” he said.

Things happen in spring training that can’t happen any other time of year.

Padres teammates Chris Young and Will Venable played basketball at Princeton. So they decided to have a free throw shooting contest in spring training. Young and Venable were the team captains.

“That was as nervous as I’ve ever been in any athletic competition,” Young said. “My team was counting on me because I played college basketball. But I wasn’t a good free throw shooter.”

In 1993, Marlins center fielder Chuck Carr drove his own car 1,000 miles to spring training. He said he stopped at as many pool halls as he could along the way.

“And I took a lot of people’s money,” he said.

Only in spring training would then-Rockies pitcher Jeremy Guthrie ride his bike to the ballpark every day.

“He pitched in a game in Scottsdale, then got on his bike — still in full uniform — with his glove on his handlebars and rode 5 miles back to our facility” Cuddyer said. “It was like a scene from ‘The Sandlot.”’

The Mets’ spring training facility was built over a hunting preserve. In the first spring training there, manager Davey Johnson told his pitchers to do their long-distance running through a trail in the woods. One day, pitcher Sid Fernandez, screaming, raced out of the woods.

“There’s a monster in there!” he shouted.

He had been chased by a warthog.

The Rangers’ spring training facility for part of the 1980s was in Pompano Beach, Florida. It was located next to an airstrip where the Goodyear Blimp was stationed.

“I got to drive the blimp once,” then-Rangers coach Rich Donnelly said. “We drove it as low as we could. We drove it over the team hotel where our players were on the roof drinking. We were yelling at them from inside the blimp. The blimp was the highlight of my spring.”

Only in spring training would Barry Bonds, wearing a wig on top of the dugout, be Paula Abdul in an “American Idol” spoof with Giants teammates.

Only in spring training would Rangers manager Doug Rader have a picnic for his players, who were playing poorly at the time, on blankets in center field before a game.

Only in spring training could Charley Pride work out with the Rangers, Garth Brooks get into a game with the Padres and Billy Crystal actually make contact against Pirates pitcher Paul Maholm

In 2003, Indians pitcher Brian Anderson, 30 minutes into a bus ride to Vero Beach, realized that he had forgotten to pack his hat, spikes and glove in Winter Haven.

“When we got to Vero,” he said, “I was in full panic mode. I borrowed a car and went to a mall, but there wasn’t one glove in the whole mall. But I found some Adidas spikes. Then I saw a Walmart. I thought, ‘Hey, Walmart has everything — tires, produce — it must have a baseball glove.’ I found one — $29.95 — already broken in. It was a softball glove, a Wilson. It was awful. I borrowed someone’s hat and pitched in the game. Of course, I got three come-backers to the mound and I caught them all because my new glove was as big as a butterfly net. It made [Braves pitcher Greg] Maddux’s glove look small. That day reminded me of when I was 17 playing [American] Legion ball. That is spring training to me.”

This time, though, it’s not going to be a traditional, relaxing, fun spring training. There will be no alligators, monsters in the woods, magic tricks, sandlots, blimps, deer jerky, free throws or pitchers driving the team bus. It’s not going to be the same — but it is spring training, so we’ll take it. Let’s just get through it, let’s keep everyone safe and get to April 1 in one piece.

“This will be my 14th spring training, and it’s not going to be near what we’re used to having in spring training,” Vogt said. “We don’t like it, but this is how is has to be. I’m bummed that we’re not going to have normalcy again, but I’m still excited. It’s my favorite time of year. It’s spring training.”

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