The real action, games and at-bats that mean everything at that precise moment, is still over a month away, but this will do for now. We’ll read the same old quotes that players come out with every year and stare at the photos showing our heroes back out where they belong, on impossibly green fields with the sun blazing down. Soon they will be out on the field playing games in the Cactus or Grapefruit league, depending on which coast of America their team calls their pre-season home.
There will be stories of importance involving every team, from position battles to the dreaded injury reports, but mostly it’s a case of marking time between now and Opening Day.
That doesn’t make these stories any less noticeable because they are all we’ve got and we will read each word no less interested through knowing that they will probably not add up too much in the greater scheme of the season ahead.
That’s why the early days of Spring Training always make me think of the beat writers that follow a team. The Hot Stove ensures that most will still have plenty of baseball-related news to cover over the offseason, so there really isn’t an offseason for the beat writer. Still, travelling to Spring Training must be a similar experience for them as it is to the players. They are starting a journey that will continue until the end of September, or October if the team makes it all the way to the Fall Classic.
It’s a journey that will involve them sitting in a ballpark the day after sitting in a ballpark and the day before sitting in a ballpark again. That sounds like heaven, and I’m sure few beat writers would swap it for anything, but the endless days of living out of a suitcase, being away from home and being under the pressure of quickly writing game reports while writing feature pieces before and after each game (not to mention the tweeting and blogging that now go with the territory) all make it a far from easy way to earn a living.
Spring Training must be particularly difficult because the games, once they start, really don’t mean anything. There will be the odd great or terrible pitching performance by an established star worthy of attention, or a cameo here or there by a youngster destined to be in the Minor Legaues come April but doing his best to make an impression, but mostly it’s simply about players getting their work in. So the beat writers have to come up with their own stories every day to keep us amused and informed.
Every Spring Training without fail, alongside re-reading several essays by Roger Angell that get to the lazy heart of this time of the baseball year, I always read back over the sections in The Boys of Summer when Roger Kahn describes his period in Spring Training having just taken up the role as a beat writer covering the Brooklyn Dodgers.
There are many facets to Boys of Summer that make it such a timeless classic. One of these is the way it explores the craft of writing and some of the key passages come from Kahn’s initial days learning about the life of being a beat writer.
Reading those passages again, the bit that struck me the most was not so much about the writing, but about the writer being given access to to a world that he (or she) has followed intently since they were a child. Kahn thinks he knows about baseball, especially the Brooklyn Dodgers, but then pitcher Clem Lambine asks him to stand in the batter’s box while he loosens his arm.
“Although Labine was not regarded as very fast, and was complaining about his arm, the ball exploded past the plate with a sibilant whoosh, edged by a buzzing of hornets. I had never heard a thrown ball make that sound before”.
Kahn then goes on to note that his impulse was to get out of the way. “Resisting was the totality of my strength”, he writes. “I could no more have swung, let alone hit, one of Labine’s pitches than run a three-minute mile”. He retreats to his hotel room, concluding that “this was not my game, I knew. All the baseball I had played was irrelevant to sinkers that hissed like snakes and curves that paralysed”.
I don’t suppose many beat writers get to stand in the batter’s box nowadays – although I’m sure there are plenty of pitchers who would be more than happy to scare the living daylights out of a few of them – but they are down there on the field and in the clubhouse with the players every day. They can bring us into the world of a Major League player.
Using advanced statistics to analyse players or viewing performances through the eyes of a fantasy team owner are two insightful and engrossing ways to follow baseball, but in many respects part of that process requires you to depersonalise the game.
Part of a beat writer’s job is to do the exact opposite, to help fans identify with players and to emphasise the human element of the game. The beat writer view and the analytical view can be at odds at times, perhaps the former’s tendency to highlight ‘clutch’ moments is the best example of this. Yet that’s part of the beauty of this game: there are many different ways you can look at, and enjoy, all it offers.
In Spring Training, the beat writer style stories tend to dominate because, as the more stat-minded writers will be quick to note, you can’t tell too much from performances in exhibition games. Hearing tales about pitchers trying a new grip for their change-up or position players being in the best shape of their life don’t normally provide much of a guide as to who is in for a breakout season, but then again they’re not really supposed to.
They’re meant to be fun, to get across the simple joy shared by players, fans and beat writers alike that winter is passing and baseball is back with us for another year.
And what could be better than that?