You may be surprised to learn I love football and basketball. It’s true. Not at the level of the relationship I have with baseball, but I can’t imagine a year without a Cowboys or Mavs season to help me get through it.
In fact, it’s not impossible for me to imagine a world in which all three sports held equal footing with me. But even then, what I can’t envision is training camp for those other two sports ever coming close to the sanctity of baseball’s spring training.
Maybe there’s a recency bias—particularly given that I’ve been able to share the spring training experience with my son, now 18, for most of his life—but I do have some standing to offer an opinion. I went to three or four Cowboys camps at St. Edward’s University in Austin in the early ’90s and another couple in Wichita Falls after that. They were … fine.
I don’t even know how accessible Mavericks camps are, but I do know that as a high school junior, I went down to Reunion Arena—or maybe it was Moody Coliseum; I don’t know, and I bet you don’t, either—with some buddies to watch, along with tens of fellow Mavs fans, a pre-pre-season workout. I know it was 1985 because I couldn’t contain my excitement getting the chance to see the sixth-year franchise’s three (!!) first-round picks, Detlef Schrempf, Bill Wennington, and Uwe Blab, on the floor together. And I was in no mood to wait for HSE to broadcast a preseason game against the Seattle Supersonics or newly named “Sacramento” Kings to get a glimpse. (Schrempf yelling Blab’s name in a jarringly impossible baritone may be the only reason why I remember this outing nearly 38 years later.)
But I’ve been to more than 30 Texas Rangers spring trainings. I’ve been in Port Charlotte, Florida or Surprise, Arizona just about every February or March of my adult life. I’ve seen 18-year-old Pudge Rodriguez and 46-year-old Nolan Ryan (not to mention 66-year-old Nolan). I’ve seen Alex Rodriguez and Jose Canseco, and two iterations of Sammy Sosa. I’ve seen pre-injury Ruben Mateo and pre-horrible-trade Kyle Hendricks and pre-more-horrible-trade Chris Young and Adrian Gonzalez. I’ve seen Vladimir Guerrero Sr., Fernando Tatis Sr., and Bobby Witt Sr. I’ve seen Bobby V and Buck, Wash and Woody. I’ve seen John Rocker and am about to see Kumar Rocker.
A quick Google search confirms that my ratio of spring trainings to football/basketball training camps attended is about the same as the proportion of books written about the three.
Why is that? There isn’t a single person who would make a convincing argument that baseball, as a sport, is on the same level as the other two in popularity anymore. So why is it that “Pitchers and Catchers Report” remains as romantic a sports marker as there is?
Maybe it’s because football players have helmets on their heads, while basketball stars have a roof over theirs. There’s certainly something to be said for seeing your team up close without face masks—the look in their eyes, the smiles on their faces, the breaking sweat that promises another season is imminent—and even more for being outdoors to see it. On that note, to be fair, 80 March degrees in Surprise, Arizona, is far more inviting than 103 July degrees in Austin or Wichita Falls. But even if we were to plug in the Cowboys’ current Oxnard, California, campsite for the comparison, I will always vote to escape 45 degrees at home for a thawing-out 80 ahead of leaving 105-degree evenings behind for those same temps in the 80s.
There’s also something about seeing supernatural feats up close from players who look almost relatable. Not 6-foot-6 and built like a Transformer while rip-moving through an even bigger lineman. Not able to jet-pack three feet up and 10 feet away to flush a basketball. Seeing and hearing Josh Hamilton cause a sonic disturbance with his bat from 15 feet away, or watching the ball come out of Yu Darvish’s right hand (when he’s not throwing left-handed to work on his balance) and do one of about six things, or watching Adrian Beltre do insane stuff with a leathered left hand is, to me, as striking as anything in sports because those guys at least appear nearly as human as the rest of us. If you ever saw Ian Kinsler take live BP, you know what I’m talking about. You had to remind yourself you weren’t watching his hands at 1.5x speed.
The other thing about spring training is, as long as you wait a couple weeks to let the players get ramped up, there are games every day. And not just intrasquads. There are full-fledged games with P.A. announcers and anthems and beer. “B” games and sim games, and backfields games with high-school bleachers and Baseball America-lionized prospects. Once each has been sent out from major-league camp, Jack Leiter versus Jordan Lawlar in front of 40 fans late in March is a distinct possibility.
For me, those backfields appointments may be the thing that separates baseball the most. Football and basketball have no farm systems. Would spring training be the same for me if it were only big leaguers fighting for 26 spots each year? Probably not. I will always want to see more than what the looming season is going to look like.
The truth is, most of those Low-A lineups I’ve spent three decades watching, generic spiral notepad in one hand and nondescript bottle of water in the other, have provided few early glimpses of eventual impact greatness. For every Ryan Rua and Keone Kela who defy the odds, however briefly, there have been far fewer Kinslers and Martin Perezes. By far the largest category is the one that includes guys like Jairo Beras, Matt West, Johnny Whittleman, and Michael Matuella. Dashed hopes are part of it. For them. For us.
That’s not the draw, of course. Life is already full of dashed hopes. The nice weather is inviting, and so is the pop of horsehide on cowhide providing the rhythm section behind the scraping of cleats. Ballgames are cool, too. But all of that will be around back home if I can just wait a couple months. So what is it? What is spring training’s gravitational pull?
Those first few camps were therapy for a college student and a young lawyer craving an escape. Soon, though, they were the canvas across which I was able to introduce Erica and Max to baseball—the kind that they’d seen on TV, but brought to life in a way that even a ticket to Globe Life Park couldn’t provide. Sure, there were concrete reasons for me to be there and assignments to complete: watching prospects for a story, talking to coaches and scouts for a story, sitting in on peak performance meetings for a story. But the real draw for me, year after year, has been the annual reunion with the game in its purest form, before losing streaks and injuries and prolonged slumps have the chance to harsh the mellow. Getting to do that as a dad only adds layers of awesomeness.
My last spring training before we had the kids was pre-A-Rod. My next one, in a few weeks, will be my last before we will have turned both kids loose on the world. Maybe there will be an Anthony Gutierrez moment on Field 6 that Max and I will never forget, or a dinner conversation with a minor league coach whose impact will outlast the playing career of every lefthander and every shortstop we see on the backfields. Or a chat with Kinsler, the newly named special assistant to the general manager, about whether infielder Thomas Saggese reminds him (and not only scouts) of himself. Or a realization that, though I’ve been fortunate enough in my quick visits never to be inured to the drudgeries that set in for those spending a month-plus cycling through routines, spring training is about to never-be-the-same for me in a much more profound way.
For the players, spring training is, at its core, about getting arms stretched out and refreshing muscle memory. There’s an undertone of muscle memory for me, too. And I’m thankful to say that my pilgrimage, my annual trip to a mecca of baseball, possibilities, and thaw, is on deck.