Alex Rodriguez finally admitted that he and fellow Yankee Derek Jeter are no longer best buddies, though they promise to work together on the field. Barry Bonds showed up, and even posed in a goofy T-shirt, along with new San Francisco Giants teammate Barry Zito ("Don't ask me ... ask Barry!" the shirts read, with arrows pointed to one another). Some 200 members of the international press corps surrounded rookie Boston Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka to watch him warm up! ESPN even broke into a college basketball game this week to report that New York Yankees right fielder Bobby Abreu might miss two weeks of spring training because of an injury.
And guess what? Even after all those stunning developments, we still have the whole month of March to gloss over exhibition game box scores, needlessly fret about fifth starters and, let's be honest, itch for opening day to mercifully arrive.
For years, baseball romantics have sung the praises of spring training, those six weeks in the sun where players fine-tune their skills for the upcoming baseball season. But while it may be a sweet deal for the Florida and Arizona locals, or the snowbirds that can flock down south to get cozy with their favorite stars, it's pure torture for the rest of us.
And unnecessary torture at that. The drawn-out spring training may have served a legitimate purpose at one time, but these days do pitchers and catchers really need six weeks, and the position players five weeks or so, to get into shape? No way. First, if they're truly earning their millions, players will be lifting weights and whacking balls all off-season. "These guys don't sell suits in the winter anymore," notes Joe Sheehan, a senior writer at Baseball Prospectus. Plus, why should, say, the NBA have only a month-long preseason, while baseball stretches it out another half month? Basketball is without a doubt a more physically grueling game, so theoretically pro hoops players should need even more time to shape up; if you think I'm wrong, just remember John Kruk and David Wells, two rotund guys who looked like they belong in a bar league but were outstanding baseball players. Basketball teams need time to install, and perfect, complex offenses. What plays must baseball teams put in? Hitting the cut-off man? Rotating the infield on a bunt? Turning the double play? Players have been doing this stuff since Little League. It should take a day or two.
And baseball's training requirements don't even compare to pro football's. The NFL's summer sessions also last some six weeks, and teams also run mini-camps throughout the off-season. But football playbooks are like physics texts, so it's a wonder players don't need a whole semester to learn their schemes.
Perhaps no one complains about the length of spring training more than the players themselves. Ken Griffey Jr., for one, has called it "way too long." One exception is Ty Wigginton, a third baseman for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. "I believe the more pitches you see, the more at-bats you get, the better off you're going to be," he says, while adding, "I don't know too many players who agree with me."
The pitchers are the ones who should benefit most from the extended prep, as they can power up their arms, which will take a beating during the long grind ahead. But ex-New York Mets general manager Steve Phillips says, "Pitchers complain about it too." Phillips thinks spring training is excessive for the position players, but insists the pitchers need the six weeks. But look at 1995. That year the players' strike was resolved in the spring, and everyone pitchers and position players alike got just three weeks to prepare. Lo and behold, no one's arm melted.
Despite the carping, don't expect a slimmed-down preseason and the reason is simple, money. "Spring training is lucrative for clubs, lucrative for the cities that host them, and will continue to be popular," says Maury Brown, editor of bizofbaseball.com, a site that tracks the economics of the game. According to a recent study commissioned by the Cactus League, which hosts 12 teams in Arizona, spring training will add $200 million to the state's economy.
So have fun watching those clips of players stretching. Perhaps it will be some small comfort that they are having just as little fun on the field as you are watching them.