Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 20, 2022

The Rites Of Spring

There is an unmistakable rhythm to Spring Training, even when, for the third season in a row, preparations for a new baseball season are disrupted.  Two years ago, exhibition games came to a sudden halt when the sports world shut down as the COVID-19 pandemic reached this country.  That pause was followed by bitter negotiations between MLB and the Players Association over the length and terms of a truncated season, talks that proved but precursor to the just concluded battle over a new Collective Bargaining Agreement.  In 2021 most clubs faced a variety of pandemic restrictions, often limiting attendance, constricting media access to players and coaches, and circumscribing the activities and movement of the athletes working their way towards Opening Day.  Then this year saw the first MLB work stoppage in more than a quarter-century, the owner-imposed lockout that began in December and ran for 99 days, pushing back the customary reporting dates and scrambling the exhibition schedule.

Yet even though this Spring Training is shorter than normal, with scores of free agents still unsigned, a situation that creates considerable roster uncertainty for clubs harboring serious designs on contending – sorry Baltimore, sorry Pittsburgh – the daily pace of preparations for the longest season can seem languid.  By late morning Sunday there were no more than a dozen prospects working on drills at the Yankees’ minor league complex in Tampa.  Half a mile up Dale Mabry Highway, even as fans began arriving for New York’s first home exhibition contest at Steinbrenner Field, the adjacent practice diamonds were empty.

Some of the early arriving faithful gravitated to the main practice field when at last a couple of pitchers, including the fan favorite Chad Green, emerged from the clubhouse with two catchers and began loosening up.  After a time, those fans were rewarded when several coaches arrived and began setting up for a live batting practice session.  Green, a stalwart of the Yankees’ relief corps for the last five years, threw forty or fifty pitches to a rotating group of hitters.  Infielder DJ LeMahieu, center fielder Aaron Hicks, and catcher Kyle Higashioka were joined by newly acquired third baseman Josh Donaldson.  Cell phone cameras were busy as the teammates went about their business, with the contingent of pitching and bullpen coaches arrayed behind a screen in back of Green where they carefully monitored his performance.   

Still, there was no sense of urgency as Green threw his pitches and the hitters moved in and out of the batter’s box.  He took his time between throws and the batters meandered around as they waited their turn to hit.  The closest anyone came to being in a hurry, and appropriately so, was a group of players who had appeared to practice base running drills.  With another screen set up in front of second base, to protect them from line drives up the middle, these present and future Yankees line up in pairs, one in front of another, both taking leads off the bag.  Then, when contact was made by one of the hitters facing Green, each would mimic the correct response, breaking for third on a clear hit, or returning to the base to tag up on a certain fly out, or starting a few steps toward the next base while following the ball if it seemed headed for an uncertain outcome.

The simple drill of one of the sport’s most basic skills was surely something these players had practiced since they were children.  Its appearance at a major league camp less than three weeks before Opening Day was a reminder of how the game’s fundamentals endure, and how in sports, as in life, attention to minor details can make all the difference between success and failure.  That there was time to run it even in a Spring Training operating on a compressed calendar was ample evidence that the Great Game moves at its own pace.

That was also apparent on the main Steinbrenner Field diamond a short time later, when New York hosted Detroit for its first home game of the exhibition season.  Since it was an “opening day” of sorts, New York’s starting lineup was called out to the first base line, much as the rosters for both teams will be in the Bronx at the first game of the regular season.  The Tampa locals and visiting tourists who filled Florida’s largest Spring Training park to near capacity cheered loudly for the handful of names they knew, and politely for the ones they did not, but were probably most appreciative that only New York’s starting lineup was introduced individually.  When the public address announcer asked the remaining Yankees, as well as all the Detroit Tigers, to join New York’s starting nine on the basepaths, the lines stretched almost to both foul poles.  Only a week after players reported, clubhouses are still overflowing with prospects, and there is no rush to make cuts even with the clock ticking toward games that count.

This one did not of course, and much as if it were being played in late February, when exhibition contests were supposed to start, those prospects saw most of the action.  Fans got to see about half of a major league lineup play three or four innings for both clubs, but as the score bounced back and forth in the later going, the rallies, first one by New York, then an answering charge from Detroit, were staged by hitters at the expense of pitchers all of whom will be wearing minor league uniforms in a few weeks’ time.

But if fans often weren’t sure just who it was they were cheering for, they didn’t seem to mind.  That too, is part of the Great Game’s timeless rhythms at this time of year.  As the sun crosses the equator on its annual northward march and winter at last yields to spring, the shouts from fans are not for the individual exploits that might lead a team to the pennant.  Rather they are, like simple base running drills on a back field, more basic.  They are cheers for the sports’ return, and for the hope and promise that are elemental parts of every Spring Training.  The dog days of August will come of course, and by then hopes will have waned for more franchises than just the Orioles and Pirates.  But for now, it is enough to know that baseball is back.   


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