Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 15, 2018

The Great Game Returns

Tuesday morning dawned cloudy and cold on the New Hampshire seacoast. On the other side of the gray overcast the sun was rising, but the thermometer struggled to touch 20 degrees. This winter has brought comparatively little snow, so far at least; but the weeks since the solstice have seen more than enough ice, making driving tricky and giving the quaint brick sidewalks of downtown Portsmouth a treacherous red-hued glaze. There have also been extended periods of brutal cold, against which Tuesday’s early morning reading counted as a respite.

Yet the day held far greater promise than the Dickensian notion that a dozen degrees below freezing is cause for relief. Fans venturing out were bundled in layers and the calendar remained unyielding in its insistence that winter still had more than a month to run, but on Tuesday hearts were glad and spirits were high. For in Tampa it was 70 degrees and sunny and even a few degrees warmer in West Palm. In the desert southwest the morning started cool, but with the ironclad promise that temperatures around Phoenix would match those Florida readings by lunch time. On Tuesday, those numbers provided symbolic and comforting assurance that winter will end; for Tuesday was the new beginning.

A beginning, to be certain, that in important ways is very different from what fans have seen for a generation. This year, in the warmth of Florida and Arizona players have begun to assemble not at the usual thirty training camps, but at thirty-one. Of the 166 players who became free agents last November, more than 90 remain unsigned as Spring Training gets underway, far more than in any year since the collusion winter of 1987-88. Given that number the Players Association opted to open its own camp at a facility in Bradenton, Florida, giving its still unemployed members a place to begin working out.

The list of ballplayers without contracts includes stars like pitcher Jake Arrieta and sluggers J.D. Martinez and Eric Hosmer, but also scores of journeymen, many of whom must be wondering whether their playing careers are suddenly and unexpectedly at an end. Baseball’s economics have shifted at the worst possible time for these players, with advanced metrics now embedded in the decision-making process of every front office. That’s led to a universal reluctance to offer the long-term, nine-figure contracts that have been the staple of free agency for years even as statistical evidence mounted that those deals, with numbers based on prior performance, were paying players in decline. When the Cubs inked right-hander Yu Darvish to a six-year, $126 million deal last weekend, it was both the longest and richest contract of the offseason. Yet Darvish’s deal is still some $30 million less than most analysts expected him to garner before the hot stove went stone cold.

Add to this the new pattern of teams tearing down rosters and suffering through multiple 100-loss seasons in order to rebuild farm systems and produce an eventual winner. That process can be dispiriting for those in the stands, but it worked for the Cubs and the Astros, so now nearly a third of all major league franchises are somewhere on that budget-cutting road. Those squads have necessarily opted out of the free agent market, further limiting opportunities for the unsigned players.

Those issues should concern not just the MLBPA but every fan, as should the very real possibility that commissioner Rob Manfred may use the terms of the current collective bargaining agreement to unilaterally impose a pitch clock and limits on mound visits to speed up play, over the objections of the union. A winter of player discontent makes it easy to conclude that baseball’s quarter-century of labor peace is fraying. Whether the relationship between owners and players can be stitched back together before the current CBA expires in 2021 is very much an open question.

But for one day, at least, such grim considerations go to the back of one’s mind. There will be ample time to consider the possibility of future labor strife as the longest season unfolds over the coming months, just as there will be time to contemplate batting slumps and losing streaks. Baseball mirrors life, offering bad as well as good, mixing heartbreak with triumph. At the beginning however, on the first day, hope abounds.

Tuesday brought the moundsmen and their battery mates, as well as a trickle of position players that soon surged into a flood. By the weekend workouts will be in full swing, and a few days later the first contests, between college squads and major league franchises, will get underway. Then early next Friday afternoon, at eight different ballparks spread across the Sunshine State, the call to “play ball” will ring out, to be echoed a few hours later at the seven fields in greater Phoenix, and the exhibition season will begin.

Over the next six weeks rosters will take shape. Prospects will shine, rookies will rise, and aging veterans will work hard for one more year in The Show. As the needs of each team become clear, the list of unsigned free agents will dwindle. And as all that takes place, fans sitting in the sun at the little minor league parks that serve each year as temporary big-league homes, will dream of what the new season might bring.

With both Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge in the lineup, perhaps the Yankees will set a record for team home runs. With a rotation fortified by the signing of Darvish, perhaps the Cubs will return to the Fall Classic. By pairing the best player in the game in Mike Trout with the prized offseason acquisition of phenom Shohei Ohtani, perhaps the Angels will return to the postseason. In what might be the final year that Bryce Harper wears the curly-W, perhaps the Nationals will finally move beyond the first round of the playoffs. Having come within one game of a title last fall, perhaps the Dodgers will be hungry enough to take the final step. Having finally tasted the sweet champagne of victory for the first time in franchise history, perhaps the Astros are ready to become a dynasty.

Winter will yield to spring, and the games will start to count. The longest season will unfold through summer heat and on into the pennant chase as leaves begin to fall. Along the way many hopes will be dashed, but not all. If in the end the fans of only one team are entitled to a parade, the faithful of many others will enjoy seasons that exceed expectations. And for those who ultimately know only disappointment, there will always be the admonition first popularized in Brooklyn. Ebbets Field is long gone, but a fan strolling through the Crown Heights neighborhood, turning the corner where Sullivan Place meets McKeever Place might still hear the ghosts whispering, “wait till next year.”

The Great Game returns. On Tuesday the familiar clarion call went out. Four words that light the fire of hope and possibility in the heart of every player and every fan – pitchers and catchers report!


  1. Well done, Mike. I could hear a far-off orchestra tuning up, the sound growing louder as you walked us through this preliminary to the Big Show.

    • A great analogy Alan. The annual tune-up is underway. It may sound discordant at times but will ultimately produce sweet notes.


      Michael Cornelius

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