Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 14, 2019

After A Winter Of Doubt, The Moment Of Possibility

Less than two weeks ago, thousands gathered in the early morning at Gobbler’s Knob, a park tucked away in a rural corner of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. They made the trek to the tiny borough in the western part of the Keystone State for the odd purpose of watching an assembly of men in top hats and tuxedos interpret the actions of a groundhog and thus learn how long the winter season will endure.

This year, according to his minders, Punxsutawney Phil predicted an early spring. To that Mother Nature’s utterly predictable response was to shortly deposit six inches of new snow here in northern New England, topped off with a fine sheen of ice that left roads better traveled by a Zamboni than an auto, as a way of reminding we mere mortals how absurd it is to look for guidance from those who, with cult-like faith, take their meteorological advice from a rodent. So now we in this frozen quadrant of the country endure a seasonal depression brought on by bone-chilling temperatures and piles of snow quickly gone from pristine white to dreary grey. Yet even in the black dog’s grip, we manage to look southward, as always at this time of year, and find reasons to hope.

Our collective gaze turns to the warmer climes of Florida and Arizona, where among the palm trees and cacti the surest signs of spring materialize like friendly spirits made corporeal by the power of our most fervent wish. Spread across the Sunshine State’s peninsula, from Tampa to Fort Myers on the Gulf Coast and from West Palm Beach to Port St. Lucie on the Atlantic, and bunched closely together in the Valley of the Sun, from Goodyear to Glendale to Mesa and Tempe, one by one the camps have opened. The compound surrounding Hohokam Stadium in Mesa, Arizona was the first to do so this year, followed the next day by the main stadium and twelve practice fields at the Peoria Sports Complex, on the other side of Phoenix. The former is the spring training home of the Oakland Athletics, while the latter hosts both the Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres. The A’s and Mariners needed to get a jump on preparations for the new season, for those two teams will start play with a two-game set in Tokyo, where the great Ichiro Suzuki is likely to take his final big league at-bats, fully one week earlier than Opening Day for the other twenty-eight franchises.

But that head start was brief, and as this is written the call has gone out across the Great Game and the players have responded, renewing the rituals of preparation that stretch back through decades and tie this constantly evolving sport to its roots in a distant time that suddenly seems far simpler than ours. For the joy that the start of spring training always brings is tempered this year by the obvious dysfunction that has infected baseball’s fundamental economic compact. For the second year in a row winter’s hot stove never managed to ignite. Behind the frail fig leafs of advanced analytics and a new paradigm for achieving success, owners have unilaterally altered the long-standing financial bargain with players, and while the result has been dollars saved for the handful who write the checks, it has come at the cost of rapidly growing discontent among the many who cash them.

The plethora of increasingly detailed statistics has led teams to conclude that paying players well into their late thirties is a losing proposition, even though that is the established structure of the current rules relating to free agency, which delay the moment when a player can negotiate with any franchise until most are either at or approaching their thirtieth birthday. In concert with this sabermetric-induced recognition of a typical player’s career arc, the recent back-to-back championships won by the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros popularized the notion that the surest road to glory requires a detour through the potholed side streets of roster teardowns and hundred-loss seasons, during which teams have no interest in competing for either free agents or first place.  Last season a record eight teams lost more than ninety games.

Since the current collective bargaining agreement still has three years to run, there’s little the Players Association can do. But the owners’ argument that the recent decline in the share of total revenue going to team payrolls is all about a sudden awareness that committing twenty million a year or more to a forty-year-old fading star is wasted money has fallen flat this offseason, for camps have opened with both Bryce Harper and Manny Machado still unsigned. Because they entered the majors far earlier than most players, the two superstars reached free agency at the tender age of twenty-six, with the reasonable expectation of many years of All-Star caliber production still ahead. But after years of speculation about the gargantuan offers both would receive, neither seems to have developed much of a market in this new era of contractual penny-pinching. Even more concerning for players is that Harper and Machado are but the two most high-profile of more than one hundred free agents still without contracts.

If this is baseball’s new reality, as some in management have suggested, it is one that has provoked many players. Veteran pitcher and seven-time All-Star Justin Verlander called the current system “broken” on Twitter, and followed that by suggesting teams are “hiding behind this rebuilding mantra,” and wondering why fans of those teams would bother coming to the ballpark.

So while the sun is shining in Florida and Arizona, this spring training begins with dark clouds on the Great Game’s horizon. Still these first days are always about hope, and perhaps there was some of that in the news that the two sides had traded ideas in recent informal discussions. Management is interested in speeding up the game, with things like a pitch clock and a requirement that relievers face at least three batters. The players, in turn, suggested expanding the designated hitter to the National League effectively adding fifteen well-paid jobs to NL rosters, changes to the draft order to incentivize winning, and service time bonuses based on performance to help young stars reach free agency sooner.

Other than the pitch clock, which MLB commissioner Rob Manfred can impose unilaterally, none of these changes are likely to become reality before 2020 at the earliest. In weighing the competing proposals, one can’t help but think that given a choice between a contest ending five minutes sooner or having their team regularly come out on top, most fans in the stands would happily stick around for a bit longer. Still any evidence that the parties who together have forged the Great Game’s long period of labor peace are at least talking is welcome news, especially after a long winter of stasis and growing resentment.

We fans will take it and allow ourselves the luxury of ignoring the storm clouds for a few days. We will focus instead on the open-ended potential that accompanies every new beginning. For that is the balm of spring training’s start, the unlimited possibilities in front of every franchise. Even if only one fan base will ultimately attend a parade, there will be others that will revel in unexpected accomplishments, be it a dramatic improvement in a team’s record, a breakout season by an unheralded rookie, or a renaissance year by a wily veteran.

The groundhog may have been no match for Mother Nature, but each year’s clarion call reminds every fan that the snows of February will melt, to be replaced by the rich brown of the base paths and the broad sweep of green that is the outfield in every ballpark across the land. And when the time comes to settle the roiling issues between management and labor, perhaps the owners will be mindful of that call. For the words that quicken the pulse and spark the flame of hope in the heart of every fan are not “owners assemble.” The command is not “general managers gather” or “analytics departments attend.” The call is to the players. The Great Game returns, with promise and possibility, on the day that “pitchers and catchers report.”

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