Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 14, 2013

The Magical Moment Returns

Here in New England the snow is deep, and the feeble February sun is but a pale yellow disk hanging in the frigid blue sky. It poses little threat to the white blanket covering the ground. But even here, we now know that spring is coming; and this week the biting cold doesn’t seem so severe. Flames of hope have been rekindled in the hearts of fans everywhere, and the warmth of those flames can turn aside winter’s chill.

In Florida and Arizona the moment of renewal has arrived. Equipment trucks from cities all across the land have completed their journeys and pulled into spring training complexes, disgorging their cargo of bats and balls and gloves, uniforms and supplies. Physicals have been taken and the first sessions of long toss held, as the familiar rhythms of camp slowly begin to take hold. It is a moment filled with possibility.

Hopes are high at the fifteen Grapefruit League sites in Florida; perhaps nowhere more so than in Viera. At Space Coast Stadium in the little planned community on the state’s Atlantic coast the Washington Nationals held their first full workout for pitchers and catchers on Thursday. The Nats led the majors with 98 wins last season, and there were playoff games in the nation’s capital for the first time in eight decades. Over the winter they resigned slugging first baseman Adam LaRoche, added an elite closer in free agent Rafael Soriano, and bolstered their outfield defense while acquiring a legitimate leadoff hitter by trading with Minnesota for Denard Span. Right hander Stephen Strasburg is free of the innings limit that led to his being shut down with three weeks still to play in the 2012 season, and all of the members of this generally young team have an additional year of experience. Manager Davey Johnson has likened his squad to the 1986 Mets. Johnson managed that team to 108 regular season wins and a World Series championship, and he has set a trip to the Fall Classic as his goal for the Nationals. In D.C. their fans are looking forward to the ride.

On the Gulf of Mexico, almost directly across the state from Viera, Dunedin is home to the Toronto Blue Jays training camp. The Blue Jays won back to back World Series in 1992 and 1993, but haven’t been to the playoffs since. General Manager Alex Anthopoulos seems determined to change that. He spent the offseason providing a home to players that cash-strapped teams were trying to move. In November Toronto sent prospects to Miami in exchange for pitchers Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle, shortstop Jose Reyes and two other players. Johnson, Buehrle and Reyes have combined for ten All-Star appearances. Johnson led the NL in ERA in 2010; Buehrle has thrown both a no-hitter and a perfect game, and Reyes led the league in hitting in 2011. One month later more prospects were shipped to Queens in exchange for National League Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey and catcher Josh Thole. The Blue Jays also signed free agent outfielder Melky Cabrera to a two-year contract. Cabrera was leading the NL in batting when his 2012 campaign was cut short by a fifty-game suspension for a failed drug test. John Gibbons, starting his second stint as Toronto’s manager, knows the Blue Jays haven’t accomplished anything yet. But he also knows that at least on paper the team has vastly improved itself. Meanwhile the Yankees, Orioles and Rays, the three teams that finished ahead of Toronto in the AL East last year, all had quiet winters. Hope abounds north of the border.

There are nine training facilities in Arizona’s Cactus League, where six sites are shared by two teams each. Just southeast of Phoenix sits Tempe, where the Los Angeles Angels are getting ready for the new season at Tempe Diablo Stadium. On the other side of the state’s capital city is Glendale, site of Camelback Ranch, the spring training home of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Both teams have massive new regional television contracts, and both spent heavily in the offseason after just missing out on the playoffs last year.

Coming up short of the postseason in 2012 had to be an especially bitter result in Anaheim, where the Angels had signed two marquee free agents, first baseman Albert Pujols and pitcher C.J. Wilson. But Pujols started slowly, and at one point the Angels were just 8-15, their worst early season record in a decade. Despite the breakout performance of AL Rookie of the Year Mike Trout, Los Angeles could never quite catch Oakland and Texas. So this offseason owner Arte Moreno opened up his checkbook again, luring free agent outfielder Josh Hamilton away from Texas with a five-year, $125 million contract.

At Chavez Ravine Dodgers fans had reason to rejoice last May, when Frank McCourt’s disastrous ownership of the team ended with its sale to a group led by Guggenheim Partners CEO Mark Walter. With Magic Johnson serving as the public face of the new owners and veteran executive Stan Kasten installed as team President, the Guggenheim group immediately showed a willingness to spend. But despite adding the big contracts of Hanley Ramirez in July, and Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford in August, the Dodgers missed the playoffs for the third straight year. So just like the Angels, the Dodgers continued to spend this offseason. The main beneficiary of their largesse was pitcher Zack Greinke, who signed a six-year, $147 million contract in December. For both Angels and Dodgers fans, hope and excitement race hand in hand along the freeways of greater Los Angeles.

Of course for the fans of some teams the hopes are more muted. In Gotham Mets fans can only hope that at some point during the season their team has at least one legitimate big league outfielder; while Yankees fans have to hope that their ancient lineup can somehow put together one more big year. The Mets remained locked in the financial straitjacket of their ownership’s losses with Bernie Madoff; while the Yankees are in cost cutting mode, determined to reap the benefits of getting beneath the salary cap in 2014. But that determination meant that when eighty home runs left the Bronx with the departures of Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, Raul Ibanez and Eric Chavez, the Yankees did nothing to replace the power outage. In Houston fans are just hoping that their team doesn’t become the second in major league history to lose 106 or more games in three straight seasons. Meanwhile in Miami about all fans can hope for is a change in the rules so that Giancarlo Stanton can fill every spot in the batting order.

Except that one never knows. This time last year the smart money for the World Series matchup was on the Angels and Marlins. As already noted the Angels didn’t make the playoffs, while the Marlins wound up losing 93 games. For all the time that pundits spend making predictions, the longest season is never predictable. Injuries happen, players underperform, and teams that look great on paper don’t mesh on the field. On the other side, one can bet that on some team a young rookie that not one of us has ever heard of is going to make headlines with his performance. However strong or weak the hopes, right now all are equal, and anything is possible. All that is certain is that winter will be defeated, and spring will come again. With it will come the longest season, from chilly spring afternoons to warm summer evenings to the frost of postseason play. The Great Game returns. The clarion call summoning all fans to a new season filled with endless possibilities has once again been issued. They are the four most magical words in sports. Pitchers and catchers report!

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Responses

  1. This post should be required reading for every baseball fan. The first paragraph especially is a masterpiece.
    Wonderful overview, and yes, you’re right, my Mets don’t have a single outfielder worth remembering.
    Cheers, Bill
    P.S. My money’s definitely on the Nats this year. I think Bryce Harper will have a huge season.

    • You’re very generous Bill, thank you. I grew up in the D.C. suburbs, and remember childhood visits to old Griffith Stadium to see the original Senators and adolescent trips to RFK to see their expansion cousins. Of course both teams were always awful, which is why I became a Yankees fan. But I’ll always have a soft spot for the D.C. team, so I’ll be pulling for the Nats.

      Thanks again,
      Mike

      PS Congratulations (if that’s the right word) on the snow!


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