Spring Training and Beyond
It was the New York Giants catcher Wes Westrum who said that baseball is like a church: “many
attend but few understand.” Throughout March I have been attempting to become one of the few.
Spring Training has been in full swing. While in New Zealand my impression of Spring Training was that it would be like a pre-season training camp. Maybe a bit of individual skill development and a whole lot of physical conditioning. If John Goodman were involved there would also be plenty of running up hills – often carrying heavy things, such as logs or other people. Pre-conceptions however, can often be erroneous. Spring Training actually involves a full on, month long competition. Half of the 30 teams come down here to Arizona while the other half (yes – 15 teams) travel to Florida. The two leagues are named the Cactus League and the Grapefruit League respectively for obvious reasons.
Throughout March they play on a home and away basis for a total of about 30 games. This is of course as a precursor to a 162 game regular season (followed by further playoff games for those who qualify). I would question how keen the New Zealand professional rugby players would be to play such a concentrated pre-season competition. As a result I have the opportunity to attend a whole lot of baseball and see a number of name players. The games are played a bit like our pre-season games in that the mangers take the opportunity to use large squads. Generally during the fifth inning the whole squad is subbed out, and there is a continual pitcher round about.
The stadiums here in Arizona are small oases in the desert. Beautiful lush green arenas in the middle of an arid brown landscape. Where I am based, in Surprise, it is about a 20 minute walk to the stadium. Billy Parker Field in Surprise Stadium is the home base to the Texas Rangers and the Kansas City Royals. Each day one of these teams hosts another Cactus League compatriot. The Stadium is ten years old and a beautiful wee ballpark – about 12,000 capacity. Crowds have varied from 3,000 to 10,000 on opening day. My baseball education is continuing.
One of my favourite players is a short, fat guy from Kansas City Royals, Billy Butler (no, not Bunter). He seems to me like the prototype baseball player. He is the designated hitter, which means that luckily for him, and probably the Royals, he does not have to field. He saunters out to bat, usually three times a game and usually gets a hit, often a double (that is, gets to second base). Billy then waddles back to the dugout to be replaced by a designated runner. I cannot see right into the dugout, but I would not be surprised if he were having a quiet beer and a fag in there. Not a bad job for an “athlete” probably earning millions of dollars a year.
At a recent game I heard a couple of guys near me discussing the merits of former player Ted Williams. I couldn’t help but interject with .406. Williams is the only modern era player to have had a batting average of over .400 for a season, and they were mightily surprised when this red faced Kiwi guy knew that. I had actually just read about Williams that morning, so it was fresh in the memory banks – still my knowledge seemed to impress the regulars.
While at a local bar the other day, which Kitty and I refer to as “The Riser”, I also took full part in a football conversation that was topical here at the time, about which club Peyton Manning would play for. I debated that with the Cardinals strong defensive line and the outstanding running, catching and evasion skills of wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald that Arizona would be a nice match for Manning. It’s weird – but I even sound like I know what I’m talking about when discussing Gridiron. As it transpired Manning was actually signed by the Denver Broncosbut my opinions appeared well considered and my views deemed bona fide.
The season has now begun as we departed the soft and easy confines of Arizona. We have ventured into the main part of our journey, touring around all 30 North American Major League ballparks. Six months in a copper colouredHyundai Elantratravelling the highways and byways of this huge country awaits. Driving on the wrong side of the road all the way. The Yankees and the Red Sox have had bad starts to their respective seasons. Mine has been good and steady. We are looking forward to the sporting adventure of a lifetime. As my big brother would say; “Grab the opportunity, don’t let it go, dare to dream, live your life, burn your name and leave a mark.”