The act of practicing baseball, to those who do not play baseball for a living, has an inherent level of whimsy to it once you reach adulthood. Whenever you have the chance to do it as part of your softball or wiffleball team, or just having a catch with a friend, it’s a ticket to ride back in time for many people. Back to childhood or teenage years when things were simpler even though it probably didn’t seem like it at the time. It can also be a new experience, or maybe completely foreign and uncomfortable, to those who didn’t play baseball as a kid. Experienced or not, practicing baseball as an adult is an activity rooted in joy.
That joy is why people travel to the desert to watch professionals practice baseball. You get a chance to slow down time and engross yourself in the playful nature and relaxed pace of the game or drill that’s unfolding before you.
Hello from Peoria, where Ichiro walked right by me. Checkout @ lookout.landing on Instagram for tons more delectable practice fields content. Baseball is the best, y’all #GoMariners #CactusLeague #Ichiro pic.twitter.com/IMByxUy18X— Eric Sanford (@sanford_and_son) February 29, 2020
Wandering into the practice fields at the Peoria Sports Complex feels a bit like opening a present on your birthday because something unexpected is probably coming your way. You look up from your phone and there’s a retired international superstar and future Hall of Famer walking by mere feet in front of you. Now he’s hitting fungos for infield practice. Now he’s pitching a round of batting practice to the team’s top hitters. Now he’s back home in right field, shagging fly balls.
You can close your eyes and revel in the sound of athletes playfully swearing at each other and talking smack. Echoing calls of “Ga’ head!” are ringing out across the diamond.
An hour before I arrived at the complex, I saw the report of Evan White being held out of the next several games due to a tight groin. After the group stretching is done, I see White walk up to a group of trainers, throw his left leg out and to his side at a 90 degree angle and throw a thumbs up and a smile at his crew.
Moments later, Dee Gordon is chatting with a staffer, saying he’s “Just out here trying to turn a dollar into 50 cents.” As Dave Sims walks by, he asks in the kindest, most grandfatherly kind of way, “Dee! How’s that baby girl?”
After watching BP for another 30 minutes or so, Tim Lopes is walking to one of the secondary practice fields to do bunting drills with Mike Cameron. He says, very audibly, ”I’m gonna bunt the shit out of the ball!” to his teammate.
This is why people travel for Spring Training. This is why it’s open to the public. It’s easy to forget in early August, when the Mariners season has become a slog, how it started in such a joyful and carefree place. It behooves us to remember to slow down and appreciate why we like this absurd pastime in the first place. How it brings us joy. Why we endure postseason droughts. Why we care. Is it futile? Does that matter?
In the afterglow of the desert sun, skin tingling from more sunlight than it has seen in five months, it’s easy to say futility and droughts don’t matter when baseball can be as purely experiential as it is at Spring Training. It feels different when the results really count and it’s 55 degrees in early June and the Mariners are already 12 games under .500. There are aspects of the latter example that still bring me joy, as I know it does for many fans. We wouldn’t still be here if that weren’t the case. But, we are here in Peoria, getting a glimpse into the future as top prospects test themselves against established big leaguers and get a lifetime’s worth of education crammed into a month of practice games.
I think it’s beautiful. Whether it’s practice baseball or low-A minor league ball in West Virginia, baseball is gorgeous and joyful and we who are fortunate enough to have the time and space in our lives to witness it are nothing if not blessed.