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Dispatch from Spring Training: The Beauty of Baseball Distilled

I went to spring training. Here’s why you should, too.

MLB: Spring Training-Seattle Mariners at San Francisco Giants
Hello Motter, hello father
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

I attended spring training for the first time in 2006 with my dad. It was a dark time in franchise history, (Read: Richie Sexson leading the Mariners in WAR the previous year), but things couldn’t have been brighter in Arizona. The Peoria Sports Complex was replete with vitamin D depleted M’s fans desperate for an Ichiro autograph, and full of optimism for the season to come.

Many memories from this visit have lingered with me in the 11 years since.

I told Raúl Ibañez “nice triple,” referring to a play earlier that day where he rumbled his way to third with the help of some exceptionally spring train-y outfield defense. He raised an eyebrow incredulously, and responded, “thanks.”

Journeyman first baseman Roberto Petagine (who almost certainly has his own line of ravioli by now) hit a 9th inning homer, and gave me one of his batting gloves after the game.

Hall of Famer and San Diego Padres legend Mike Piazza signed doodled unceremoniously on a baseball I held out to him through a chain-link fence.

San Diego Padres vs New York Mets - August 8, 2006
Until I found this terrific photo I was 95% sure I dreamed he was actually ever a Padre
Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images

My dad and I chatted with shortstop prospect Michael Morse after practice one day, and took a photo with then-manager Mike Hargrove.

Not pictured: even the remotest semblance of swag

After a few games, my dad and I ventured out of the greater Phoenix area to visit relatives in northern Arizona—road tripping through the desert to a soundtrack of the Allman Brothers and the Dead—before heading back to the nascent pacific northwest spring.

Fast forward 11 years and the tune has changed, but the song remains the same. This time I made the trip with a few friends from college, but the sun was still sunny and the baseball was still beautiful.

Unfortunately my visit this time around happened to coincide with the World Baseball Classic, so a few key players were conspicuously absent. (I do believe in Taylor Motter’s ability to be a serviceable utility man for the M’s, but seeing his majestic flow cascade about his face in the desert breeze while scooping grounders at second base isn’t quite the same).

MLB: Spring Training-Chicago Cubs at Seattle Mariners
Though let’s be real, this slide does look a little Cano-esque. Also, hey Mune!
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

My midday flight from San Jose was overrun with visibly intoxicated Giants fans blathering semi-coherently about even years and Buster Posey, which made it all the more satisfying when the Mariners beat them in Peoria the next day—even though Giants starter Matt Moore had a one-hitter through 4 innings, and two different Giants relievers walked in runs, and Daniel Vogelbach struck out what felt like seventeen times, and it was approximately 95 million degrees outside.

The next day took us all the way out to SURPRISE!, Arizona, where the M’s battled stood around phlegmatically near the Rangers. With Texas knuckleballer Eddie Gamboa in the irons, throwing absolute, albeit effective, junk, an otherwise monumentally boring game was just another lovely day in the neighborhood. Devoid largely of MLB caliber players and MLB caliber plays, it didn’t matter.

Thanks to the magic of spring training, all was right in the world.

It was backLIT, fam

The Mariners had the next day off, so we moseyed out to the Rockies/Diamondbacks complex in Scottsdale to see Colorado take on the Cubs.

The first 2/3 of this game even felt like some semblance of real baseball, with many exciting elements, including Matt Szczur (hail) bunting his way on base one plate appearance and going yard the next, a solid start from consummate locator Kyle Hendricks, appearances from former Royal Wade Davis, former Red Sock Koji Uehara, and former Fairy Tale Brother Justin Grimm, and Kyle Schwarber in left field enveloping a fly ball with his torso.

Then the scrubs rolled in and things promptly unraveled. A maelstrom of errors, hit batters, and some of the most spring training-est baseball I’ve ever seen contributed to a 10-run 8th inning, which can be encapsulated in the almost poetic splendor of this particular play.

Of course, in spring training we sun-starved fanatics descending from the upper latitudes are less concerned with experiencing “good baseball” as we are with simply experiencing baseball, which is inherently good, even if the caliber of play leaves something to be desired.

Therein lies the paradox discussed by our very own managing editor Kate Preusser in her recent piece for Fangraphs; we know rationally that we must temper our expectations surrounding spring training, suppress our emotional response to the many storylines, and not overthink the quality of the baseball actually being played. Yet as the creatures of narrative we are, locked in the perpetual attempt to assign meaning to mayhem, this degree of dispassion is not easy to maintain.

As things turned out, the 2006 Mariners weren’t much better than the 2005 Mariners. Roberto Petagine made a roster spot to start the year, but was out of the league by the All-Star break. In July of the following season, Mike Hargrove resigned as manager. Michael Morse struggled with injuries, and unable to find a regular position, was traded away in 2009.

Spring training tells us little about the baseball that happens next. Tyler Motter won’t lead the team in home runs. Nick Hagadone won’t maintain an ERA of 1.13 at the big league level. Mitch Haniger will most likely not be the first player since 1941 to hit .400 in a season, though the proud members of the Mitch Haniger fan club may argue he’ll at least make it interesting. For a handful of blissful weeks in February and March, however, none of that really matters.

MLB: Seattle Mariners-Media Day
Or should I say “Motters”
Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

Since the spring of 2006, my hairline has largely receded (mercifully, as has my waistline) but my love of baseball certainly has not. I know now to be skeptical of spring training narratives, but I also know that spring training offers a genuinely special way to connect to the players, coaches, and greater baseball community. The narrative I have found is one of fun in the sun and companionship with family and friends, regardless of the nature of the baseball itself.

At this point I have empirically determined there is no better springtime activity than to slide back on the outfield lawn and surrender, sundrunk and euphoric, to the beauty of baseball. It’s a testament to the enduring power of the game we love, and it’s hard not to be sentimental.

A picture worth 3,000 hits

Oddly enough, my favorite memory from this last visit wasn’t Mariners-related at all.

At the game in Scottsdale, my friend and I spent some time over by the Rockies bullpen. In between innings, a young fan, probably 9 or 10, decked out in eye black with glove in tow, (we’ll call him Colton, he seemed like a Colton), got the attention of Colorado bullpen coach, Darren Holmes.

“Hey coach, can I have a ball?”

Holmes peered up into the stands through his sunglasses.

“I’ll give you a ball if can answer these baseball questions.”

Colton squinted down through his eye black, suspiciously.

“Do you want to play in the big leagues?”

Colton nodded.

“If you’re gonna play in the big leagues, you need to know the game.”

Darren Holmes then rattled off a handful of what could only be described in the loosest sense as “baseball questions”:

“How wide is home plate?” (17 inches, Colton guessed 2 feet)

“How far front-to-back is the pitcher’s rubber?” (6 inches, Colton guessed 4)

“How many outs in an inning?” (Colton guessed 3, but of course if we’re getting technical, and clearly Darren Holmes is the kind of guy who likes to get technical, the answer is 6)

After telling him the answers, Holmes asked Colton the same questions again. Rapid fire, Colton answered each one correctly.

Holmes grimaced (I think he was attempting a smile), and flipped Colton a baseball. “Best of luck, kid,” he said, as only a grizzled former MLB reliever could, and went to check on a young lefty who had just gotten the call from the dugout. Colton hustled off to celebrate his new possession with his dad, who was watching knowingly from a shady spot a few feet away.

It’s moments like these that remind me baseball is fundamentally human. In all our preoccupation with prognostication and statistics, it’s easy to forget this truth. (I’ve certainly felt myself descending down the analytics rabbit hole as of late, so experiencing real baseball again was a nice reminder).

And if baseball is fundamentally human, spring training is baseball at its most human—sometimes painfully so. It is raw baseball that lacks pretension or affectation, distilled in sweat and sunscreen, where the bobbles are as beautiful as the putaways. In this sense you truly could say it’s all about the fundamentals.

Colton might never make the bigs, but he’ll never forget that spring training memory. I certainly haven’t forgotten mine.

So, if you decide to make the trip down next spring, I promise you won’t regret it. And if you do, come say hey; you’ll find me sprawled on the outfield lawn, soaking in the beauty alongside my baseball family—even if it’s 96 million degrees Fahrenheit.

Now here is a video of Mike Piazza mashing a Darren Holmes baseball 496 feet.