“Generalizations are tricky, sweeping conclusions trickier. But there is one word that perhaps best describes what we’re missing, and even here I might be applying too broad a stroke. The word is joy.” –Ken Rosenthal
There is a happily acknowledged absurdity to the annual fan ritual of Major League Baseball spring training. Every year, before the cold, bitter winter finally decides to relent, some of us—maybe even somewhat irresponsibly—pack up our things, abandon our busy lives, and watch mostly irrelevant nine inning practice match ups in the tiny stadiums of Florida and Arizona.
The standard joke of it can be summed up with this anecdote; a few days ago, when my husband informed a store clerk that we were in Florida for baseball spring training, the clerk earnestly replied, “oh yeah, where do you train?”
Most fans make the long journey down here because they miss baseball and simply can’t wait until Opening Day, but also because they appreciate the relaxed, intimate, low-pressure nature of the whole affair. Everything feels slow, meandering, and bizarrely polite. The food and the beer taste better. The sun is shining and there’s a pleasant breeze. High profile superstars may only stick around for a handful of innings, but they’re also only a few feet away, generously reaching over the railing to sign dozens of autographs, and giving a pleasant little wave before their next at bat.
Spring training also affords a rare appreciation for the fact that it can be okay—even fun—to fail. A pitcher can experiment to lacklustre results. A shortstop can get bored during a rundown and just go ahead and walk off the field. The Blue Jays can be near the bottom of both the Grapefruit and the American League standings and no one will declare it dire. A team can get crushed by twenty-one runs and everyone will have a good laugh about it. (Okay, maybe the Mariners aren’t laughing.) Frankly, there’s not much to be bothered about, and by the time the season officially starts, most of it, barring injury, will be forgotten.
I’m not saying that spring training isn’t important—only that our beloved infatuation with it, and even the information it provides, can be light-heartedly comical in the grand scheme of things. John Gibbons lets a scrum of reporters know that “we haven’t decided what we’re going to do” when it comes to the team’s opening day starter, and adds that he has the luxury of having “no problem” starting any of them. There is rejoicing when we see Josh Donaldson, once sidelined with a calf injury, simply putting on his uniform again and “strolling” to first base. There is a lot of news, and non-news, and ridiculous news, and because we love baseball we lap it all up.
Fans and experts alike will acknowledge that February and March rarely give us an accurate reading of how the season ahead will unfold. But it’s still baseball that’s being played, and it’s baseball that comes after a long, painful absence. It’s only natural that all of it makes us really, really happy.
Earlier this week, Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal wrote a World Baseball Classic-inspired column on the topic of baseball joy. Though I don’t agree with every word, I was glad to see it run, mostly because although we spend a great deal of time reporting on and discussing the tiniest details of this game, the concept and importance of “baseball joy” is something I feel like we never really cover enough. Sure, there are pervasive talking points about “making baseball fun again,” about baseball passion and displays of baseball passion, and whether or not said displays of baseball passion are actually appropriate. (They always are, unless they’re from the hypocritical Rougned Odor.)
But at the unacknowledged core of all these conversations is that single human feeling of joy. It’s the feeling we’re all chasing down here in Florida and Arizona, the one we’re searching for in front of our televisions, in the stands, in the press box, and on the field. We long to feel it, and for a lot of us baseball, wherever it may be played, whoever may be playing it, and however “meaningful” it actually is, has been the quickest route to accessing it.
As Rosenthal writes, “Too often we forget—as we crunch numbers, dwell upon every player’s flaw and critique every manager’s last move—that the game is supposed to be fun.” Certainly a very different kind of fun than a slow spring training game, the World Baseball Classic has afforded many who may have forgotten a window into the true unabashed glee of this game. Though these other spring games have too been dismissed as mere meaningless exhibition, they are a thrilling reminder of what baseball can be all about, and have totally been worth screwing up one’s sleep schedule for. (There really is something legitimately wonderful about watching baseball at 5 AM, regardless of who is playing.)
For me, it has been interesting being stationed in baseball-enthusiastic Florida for the duration of the WBC, watching these intense, celebratory televised matchups alongside the decidedly more relaxed moments of MLB spring training—the kind of games where effort and emotion is rationed. I have attended Orlando and Dunedin spring training games by day, and taken in The Classic during the evening and very early insomniac-aided mornings. (Both beautiful in their own ways.) Right now I am about as baseball saturated as you can get, and the thing that has struck me the most about the experience is that all of the people around me—in bars, in the stands, stuck in supermarket lineups—are incredibly excited about baseball.
The general fervour, the cheers and the groans, all the discussions about incredible plays and iconic moments—it frankly feels strange that only a few weeks ago we were consumed by conversations of how to get the uninitiated to care about this game. In fact, all those recent proposals on how to “fix” baseball now seem absurd, when on every stage it keeps revealing how perfect and joyful it really is.
During last Saturday’s riveting USA vs. Dominican Republic game, when Jose Bautista sent that charming pre at bat wink in the direction of Marcus Stroman, he signaled everything we needed to know about the relationship between joy and this game. Wherever and whatever the match up, no matter the circumstances, even no matter the pace, baseball is, and always was, tons of goddamn fun.