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Baseball

A Father’s Meditation on Spring Training

For the first time in a long time, I went to Surprise without my son.
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Tempe Diablo Stadium on March 11, when the Rangers played the Angels Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve done enough spring trainings in Surprise that I can put them in all kinds of buckets. I’ve seen the highly regimented, military-precision camps of Buck Showalter and Jeff Banister, and been witness to the breath-of-fresh-air environments that Ron Washington and Bruce Bochy brought in. I’ve absorbed the Josh Hamilton buzz and the gut-punch of Yu Darvish’s elbow tear. There have been trips when I didn’t apply enough sunscreen, and others when I didn’t pack enough sweatshirts.

This year’s was just a two and a half day trip. That’s not unprecedented. Sometimes it’s all I can manage between day job and teaching responsibilities; more recently, Max’s high-school baseball schedule left him with just a three-day spring break, during which he and I would squeeze in a quick jaunt to the backfields in Arizona.

And it’s fine. It always feels like I can check a week’s worth of boxes in three days at the fields.

But two things did make Spring Training 2024 a unique one for me. For one, it’s a wholly unfamiliar and amazing vibe to experience the world champions getting their work in; it’s just different, and I trust I don’t need to explain myself there.

Second, I went alone.

Now, I’ve done that often on my annual trip to Fall Instructs, which bears strong resemblance to spring training, only at the end of the season rather than the start. But I hadn’t gone solo in the last 15 or so of my 30-plus sojourns to spring training, which, as I’ve shared in this space, is as much about family for me as it is about baseball.

Max no longer has a high-school baseball schedule to work around. He’s now dealing with a college baseball schedule. A freshman at the University of Texas, he has a position with the team’s analytics group. Weekends are occupied, and his first college spring break will be out of town with friends, as it should.

After spending last weekend in Austin with Max, I took a 6 a.m. flight to Arizona on Tuesday, ensuring that I’d get a full day at the complex. I was there in time for Bochy’s 9 a.m. media gathering, and from there jumped over to the minor-league fields to watch some defensive work. For 15 minutes, four coaches ran eight infielders through a drill on a specific play each may be asked to make once a month during the season: infield in to cut off a run, sharp grounder right at the fielder, quick feet to get into a backhand-fielding position to save a potentially decisive half-second on the glove-to-hand-to-throw exchange. 

It was beautiful (at least in the eye of this beholder).

The frenetic airport-to-rental-car-center-to-complex-to-media-workroom-to-backfields pace of the morning hadn’t allowed my mind, which, by 9:30 a.m. Arizona time, had been awake for seven hours, to reflect much. But watching that infield drill made me think of the years when Chris Woodward or Kenny Holmberg or Carlos Cardoza or Cody Atkinson or Josue Perez was kind enough to spend a little time with Max, allowing a kid with a passion for the game and a glove in hand to get in some work while on vacation.

As for this visit, I probably owe Max’s professors an apology for all the texts I indiscriminately sent him during my three days on the backfields. Check out the sound off Sebastian Walcott’s bat. Josh Jung is moving well. So-and-so says hey.

He’s living his best life in Austin, which helps make it totally cool that things didn’t work out this year to spend spring training together. And to be fair, especially the last four or five years, it’s not like I was keeping an eye on Max every second or like he was following me around. He’d be locked into third base drills on Field 5 while I was 50 yards away, watching four guys throw pens. I’d be talking to a crosschecker, he’d be taking in Anthony Gutierrez’s cage work. He’d be grabbing video on his phone, I’d be jotting notes in a weather-beaten spiral, pen in hand.

But then he and I would take the rental car over to Saigon Kitchen or Eric’s Family Barbecue. To Over Easy Café or Oregano’s Pizza or Handel’s Homemade Ice Cream. To compare notes about what we saw, and about life.

I missed my camp buddy this year. I missed the talks and the wow moments. I missed watching Max develop relationships on his own with Woody, Kenny, and Carlos. With Michael, Derek, Bottsy, and Bubba.

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Last year I wrote:

As Max and I flew back from our short trip to Surprise, I was accosted by a thought I’d been avoiding for years, just one shade of the reality that all parents face. At some point, the father-son—or, when luckier, father-mother-daughter-son—trips might be no one’s priority but mine. Erica is about to graduate from college. Max will be off to college soon. What will spring training look like for me then? Are there more trips like these in the future? Will there be grandchildren involved, with their own lost teeth and baseball pants and player interactions? I don’t know the answers. I haven’t even wanted to consider the questions.

I now know the answer to one of those questions. Spring training was still great this year. The weather, the sounds, the people. That unique vibe coming off a World Series title. The return of the game and my team from a winter’s rest. Still energizing, still therapeutic, still great. Just different.

At this point, I would bet big on there being more spring trainings for Max and me, and probably lots of them. What I can’t pin down is what those might look like. Max has created opportunities for himself in the game that have already soared beyond any I’ve ever had. He’s charting a course built on initiative and passion, and there are worse foundations.

One day, maybe our spring training visits will be a vacation for just one of us. Maybe the backfields—in Surprise, in Peoria, in Port Charlotte, in Boca Chica, who knows?—will be Max’s office.

Maybe not, but that’s one I won’t bet against. I’m now accustomed to a much different spring training experience. What’s one more?

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Nobody’s quicker to pull the baseball-as-metaphor trigger than I am, so it may not shock you that it occurs to me that all those moments on the backfields the last few years, with me focused intently on something or other that seized my attention while Max was off doing his own baseball thing, was just a precursor to what was ahead. These days, he’s off doing his own baseball thing, to be sure. It’s just in a far more literal sense, and not in Surprise—and for me, there’s nothing surprising about it.

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Jamey Newberg

Jamey Newberg

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Jamey Newberg covers the Rangers for StrongSide. He has lived in Dallas his entire life, with the exception of a…

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