Last year was the most fun I’ve ever had following baseball. While I’d been here in Seattle for the good teams of the early-2000s, I hadn’t earned it—and the endless slew of 2-1 losses on damp 48-degree nights since then brought meaning to the competitive contests we saw during last year’s endless summer.
It was that competitiveness that brought an added layer to an already beautiful game. Each evening’s outcome had significance beyond the three hours it took to create it, as that entire summer felt like something bigger—a sense palpable on warm walks over to the ballpark from the office, and on the bus rides home, when I’d loop highlights on my phone and further sear into my memory 2014’s near infinite supply of lasting moments.
There was that millisecond-long switch from doom to elation with Justin Smoak’s dive on beard hat night. There was Kyle Seager cranking one down the line, the ball bouncing off the glass as Red Sox fans looked around with a shared "well shit, the Mariners are better than us now" exhale. There was waving goodbye to Jays fans, marching out of Safeco with their playoff dreams all but crushed. There was that LoMo double. God, that double—I’ve listened to Goldsmith’s "Mariners just need a run…" call so many times I’ve just about got the whole thing down.
So it’s interesting then, at least to me, that my second favorite season sits on the opposite end of a hypothetical spectrum. It was a summer I spent living in Missoula, Montana. The Osprey won the Pioneer League that year, and I don’t remember a damn thing. I couldn’t name a single player, and the only event I can recall with any semblance of familiarity is Corey Seager hitting bases-clearing triple into the right-center gap for whoever the Dodgers’ rookie-league team is.
On evenings when Montana’s long days would make 6:30 feel like mid-afternoon, my girlfriend and I would pack a bed sheet in a backpack, head to the neighborhood grocery store for a bag of peanuts and a six pack of Flathead Cherry Ale, then bike the half-mile or so down the trail alongside the Clark Fork River to the outfield berm just past center field. Because it was rookie ball, and this wasn’t actually inside the park, you could sit out there for free—drinking your own beer and watching ball with the river trickling by beside you, and past the grandstand, the sun setting on the mountains.
To me, it was the next best thing to living out on the farm with the Kinsellas. There was no meaning to any of it—it was just baseball. It was the world’s most aesthetically-appealing game at its most basic and, stripped of all the complexities and significance, maybe it at its most pure.
That, to me, is the closest approximation I can make for why I love spring training. I understand the critiques, somewhat. Attempts to make stories out of performances that ultimately mean little grow tiring, and at some point we cross the threshold between "Woo, baseball’s back!" and "Dammit, let’s just have real baseball back." But if you ignore all of that, and fight off the excess noise, there’s just baseball.
Because the games don’t count, it’s easy to brush aside the negatives. And on the same coin, because you barely even remember the games the Mariners lost, a Robinson Cano double and Taijuan Walker punch-out are the same in defeat as they are in victory. In spring training, you appreciate the good for what it is then and cast aside the bad, all with little thought to the present or future.
Now, I am biased. I write this post on a flight back from Arizona, with my jeans rubbing the still-fresh sunburn on my pale Irish calves. The trip’s many highlights include, barely more than 24 hours ago, the surreal experience of Felix pitching on a backlot field against Austin Wilson, Gabby Guerrero, Gareth Morgan and others, and Mike Zunino hammering a double off Clayton Kershaw as I sipped a cold lemon shandy draft in the bleachers.
And as I sat waiting to board the plane not long ago, daydreaming about weather that isn't intent on turning me to dust, someone actually asked if the Mariners won yesterday—and if I knew the exact score. I didn’t have a clue.
We cruise past Mount St. Helens now, and while I’ll miss waking up in the morning to head to practice, grabbing Chik-fil-A before drinking beer and watching baseball all afternoon, there’s still spring training to appreciate. Heading back to work after a vacation is never easy, nor is just not taking one while waiting for Seattle’s summer to fully arrive, but I know my early afternoons will be accompanied by the sounds of Aaron and Rick as I pore over Word documents, spreadsheets and emails.
Every morning, I’ll still check the day’s lineups, but not with an eye towards criticism or legitimate strategy—but just as a menu of things I know I’ll like. Bus rides will still be filled with iPhone highlights, and for now, zero percent of them will be soured by whatever else happened in the rest of the game.
All of this makes me think of a Harry Caray quote I can’t believe I hadn’t seen until Larry Stone included it in a column a few week's prior to spring training's opening.
"It’s the fans that need spring training," said the broadcaster who loved baseball maybe more than anyone. "You gotta get ’em interested. Wake ’em up and let ’em know that their season is coming, the good times are gonna roll."
But even if you still feel sufficiently woken up, know that we’re not far off now. Opening Day, a day-long celebration that will mark baseball’s return to Seattle in more ways than one, is but three weeks away—roughly the same length of time as pitchers and catchers reporting to now. We're halfway home.
I still think the rest is going to fly by, but even if it doesn't, it isn't the end of the world. I wrote this in a recent article, but we're going to have plenty of time to worry about results—plenty of time to stress about missed opportunities, key players slumping and three-game skids.
For now, it's just baseball. And what's wrong with that?