From the Desk of Michael Fallon: Finding My Way to Spring Training

michaelfallonThe following contribution comes from Michael Fallon, author of Dodgerland: Decadent Los Angeles and the 1977–78 Dodgers (Nebraska 2016). 

Growing up in Southern California, I never understood the fuss about spring training. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve long loved baseball. Between 1974, when my love of the game first blossomed, and 1988, when I graduated from college, I lived, breathed, slept, ate, and planned much of my life around baseball. As a kid, I organized near-constant neighborhood whiffle-ball games, in which we each took turns mimicking our favorite players on the mound and at bat. As a pre- and early teen, I spent countless hours cataloging and organizing my ever-growing tabletop baseball board game collections and my Topps baseball cards, ignoring the fact that I could have instead been prowling the local mall, trying to bump into local girls. In college, I passed entire lectures in my survey of Shakespeare class contemplating how to improve the Dodgers’ threadbare bullpen and wondering why the team replaced Steve Garvey with the miserable Greg Brock.

Still, none of this means I appreciated spring training.

Much to my bemusement, each January and February the baseball nation would buzz about the ritual of renewal and hope soon to take place in far-flung Florida and arid Arizona. And friends who knew my love of baseball would nod at me knowingly and mention “pitchers and catchers” in tones akin to nuns speaking about the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

“Spring training means flowers, people coming outdoors, sunshine, optimism, and baseball,” said Cubs Hall of Famer Ernie Banks in 1986. “Spring training is a time to think about being young again.” In 1988, Jim Bouton offered “spring training” as the sixth of his fifteen reasons why baseball is better than football. In 1976, Bill Veeck insisted that “the sound of the ball on the bat” in spring was the true harbinger of the end of winter, “not crocuses or swallows returning to Capistrano.”

I just didn’t get it. Flowers? Harbinger of spring? Renewed hope? Spring training games didn’t count. And even it they did, spring play was sloppy. The crowds were small. There were palm trees in the background. Pitchers’ arms were rusty. Infielders booted easy grounders. Often the teams’ big stars didn’t even appear in games. Or if they did, it was just for a few innings so they could get their work in. Then there were those annoyingly hopeful camp invites—rookies who hustled out every weak dribbler to the pitcher, who hustled out to their position after the side was retired, who hustled back to the dugout when their team was up to bat again.

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Even beyond the quality of play, I didn’t understand why people went on and on about the sunshine and the outdoors and the flowers. Heck, in California we were outside all the time—didn’t everyone live that way? We had sunshine and flowers in spades. Hadn’t anyone heard of the annual Tournament of Roses?  (It took place every January a mile or so from my house.) Spring training had nothing over California.

I’m not exactly sure when and how I finally came to understand and appreciate baseball’s annual spring ritual. Sometime after college, after the inevitable struggle to grow into adulthood—which included a stint in the Peace Corps, meanderings around Eastern Europe and the Middle East, graduate school, several excruciating entry-level jobs, and very little time for baseball—I settled into a new home in Minnesota. And they have a baseball team in Minnesota: The Twins of the American League. It only took going to one Twins game to get me hooked on the sport again, and this was despite the fact that the team played in what was widely thought to be the worst stadium in the league: The Metrodome. But it was baseball. There were hot dogs and people cheering for the hometown team. There were nine innings of slow, untimed respite from the worries and stresses of life. There was the sound of the ball knocking against the finely turned wood of the bat. It had been a long time coming, but at the Metrodome, of all places, I finally returned home.

Maybe this is all part of growing up. Maybe coming back to baseball and gaining an appreciation for spring training is part of realizing that, once we’ve left the blessed obliviousness of childhood, few things in this world exist just to bring us joy and hope. Maybe spring training evokes nostalgia for our more innocent years, reminds us of when we believed in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy and in sports heroes who were simple, uncomplicated, and true. Or maybe spring training somehow strips away everything that has come to burden us through the years—our failings in relationships, our frustration with our jobs, our inability to change that one nagging character flaw, our sense that our time in the world is slowly running out—and what is left is the fact that life is basically a good thing.

“Don’t tell me about the world,” Pete Hamill said of spring training, “Not today. It’s springtime and they’re knocking baseballs around fields where the grass is damp and green in the morning and the kids are trying to hit the curve ball.”

Whatever the reason, these days I’m a convert to the worship of spring training. I’m all in, even to the point of tracking days left until (dare I say it?) pitchers and catchers report, even to the point of pondering when I’ll next go back to Florida or even Arizona to see spring training games in person (for the third time!).

It’s an interesting thing to realize that a long-held belief of one’s younger self was flat wrong. Still, if I could I wouldn’t go back in time to set my earlier self straight in this matter of spring training. I wouldn’t wish to disturb that foolish kid’s blissful bubble of sunshine, outdoor-play, optimism, and exuberant ignorance. I’m just happy I found my way to spring training as an adult.