Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 24, 2016

Why Games That Don’t Count Mean So Much

Soon now, very soon, the games will count. The longest season begins a week from Sunday. If all goes as planned 32-year old left-hander Francisco Liriano will toe the rubber at PNC Park in Pittsburgh shortly after one in the afternoon and deliver the first pitch of the new campaign to the Cardinals’ leadoff batter. As the game between the NL Central rivals likely approaches its conclusion, the Blue Jays and Rays will get American League action started down at the unlovely and unloved Tropicana Field. Later that evening there will be a grand celebration at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City. The Royals will receive their rings before a packed house of happy fans, and then they and the Mets will reprise the matchup of last fall’s World Series.

Once that first pitch crosses the plate, the unbridled hopes of spring will yield to the sterner emotions of the regular season. The standings will matter, injuries and batting slumps will be consequential, dominant pitching performances and multi-game hitting streaks will be meaningful. The long chase will wind its way from cool spring evenings into the heat of summer, through the dog days of August and on into another autumn, thirty teams in pursuit of just ten golden tickets to the postseason.

Before fans turn to the first page of that book, before it all gets serious and the games are played in stadiums seating forty thousand and more, it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate the simple pleasures of the prelude. Spring training is winding down, and like the end of a childhood the passage into the regular season means that something innocent must be left behind, not to be seen again until the calendar completes a full turn.

The games that are now being played in Florida and Arizona may not count, but still the fans come. They come to enjoy the semi-tropical weather that eases winter’s icy grip, still in full force in some parts of the land. They come to ballparks in the Sunshine State that seat as few as 5,300 at the Astros spring home in Kissimmee and top out at just 11,000 at the Yankees’ Steinbrenner Field in Tampa. On the whole the ten stadiums of the Cactus League are larger, but even Sloan Park, home to the Cubs and the largest spring training facility, seats but 15,000.  Compared to the big league parks through the turnstiles of which fans will soon pass, these springtime fields are modest, unassuming places. Everyone in attendance is closer to the action, and the sound of a heater smacking into the catcher’s mitt can be clearly heard by many of them.

Fans come as well for the chance to see their heroes as human beings. As pregame batting practice progresses on the field, many players make their way along the first row of seats, signing autographs and exchanging well wishes with those in the stands. Later other fans will gather at back gates to these parks, for even as a game enters its later innings players who are done for the day will have showered and changed and be heading home, but not before signing a few more baseballs or jerseys handed to them by starry-eyed youngsters, and even a few equally besotted oldsters.

These little parks with no bad seats also offer affordability, something that is all too often lacking not just in the Great Game but in all our sports. Many of these fields will serve as home to minor league teams in the coming months, and if spring training ticket prices are not quite as inexpensive as an outing to see the Brooklyn Cyclones or Portland Sea Dogs, still it is a chance for a family to enjoy a game without breaking the bank.

And while these games may not count, they can matter greatly. Along with all those whose roster position is secure, here at spring training are the young men hoping for their first shot, and the aging veterans vying for a last chance. To these players on the way up or hoping not to be on the way out, these games can mean the world. Before the moment slips away, let’s admire the work of 25-year old Adam Conley. The left-hander made his big league debut for Miami last year, but hasn’t been all that highly regarded. But in facing six Detroit batters and striking out every one of them last weekend, Conley certainly called attention to himself.

Then there’s Rob Refsnyder, the 24-year old who some thought might be the Yankees starting second baseman. But New York traded for Starlin Castro during the offseason, making Refsnyder seemingly expendable. Rather than resign himself to another year in the minors or serving as trade bait, he’s worked hard to learn the third base position with hopes of making the 25-man roster as the always necessary utility man.

At the other end of his career arc is soon to be 36-year old Chien-Ming Wang. Once a winner of 19 games in back-to-back seasons in the Bronx, Wang’s career was derailed by a base-running injury in 2008. He hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2013, and was throwing in independent-league ball last summer. But as a non-roster invitee to the Royals camp, Wang has been the surprise of Surprise, Arizona. He has an ERA of 2.70 and a WHIP of just 1.10. Yes it’s spring training and only ten innings of work. But spring training is about nothing is not about hope and possibility.

Soon now, very soon, the games will count. When they do perhaps Conley’s promise will fade. Perhaps Refsnyder will be wearing a Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Railriders uniform and Wang’s career will be at an end rather than a crossroads. Perhaps theirs and dozens of other spring training stories will be forgotten, like the box scores of the games now being played. The short season of boundless hope yields, as always, to the hard grind of the six month chase for glory. But as the final days of another spring training unfold, it is also worth remembering that there is nothing wrong with hope; for with the right mix of hard work and good fortune, hope can become reality.

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