I’ve always wondered why Spring Training in baseball is so popular among fans while training camp in other sports is not. Then I got to thinking that my experience as a teacher might shed some light on this mystery. One-hundred-eighty days a year I stumble out of bed way too early, somehow manage to bathe and clothe myself while simultaneously wiping the sleep from my eyes, and trudge off to work as a high school teacher. Quite often people ask me why I do it, why I “torture” myself with such a thankless job. One of several standard answers centers around the theme of renewal – there are very few jobs where one gets the chance to start over on a regular basis and do it better this time around. I get to do that every fall. It is refreshing, cleansing, and keeps me coming back year after year.
Baseball fans are intimately familiar with this idea. Each season fans everywhere shun their normal lives in favor of box scores, Sports Center, season tickets, and AM Radio. They plan vacations to ballparks, take their families to games, and hope. They hope that those “Fan Appreciation” days every team holds in late September will be just a prelude to something much more and not a hollow gesture by those cities not among the lucky few that will still be hosting games the following week. Ultimately, however, the vast majority of fans must come to terms with the fact that some other city will be throwing a parade for some other team, a parade most of us will either watch on television or consciously avoid because it is too painful to watch. We go through all the steps of the grieving process, linger a few extra moments on denial, perhaps immerse ourselves in the NFL or NHL, until we are ready to move on. For most of us, being a fan is also a thankless endeavor, and in most cities a form of torture.
But before we know it, February rolls around and three little words are in the air, three words that a couple of months ago we never thought we would want to hear again – pitchers and catchers. Just a few days remain before Spring Training is back, and life can begin anew. What it is exactly that makes the coming of the new baseball season so much different than any other sport? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that only in baseball do teams gather at two locations and engage in a month’s worth of exhibition games in front of fans who plan their vacations to be in attendance. Perhaps it is that only in baseball do we get a good look every spring at dozens of unknown players enjoying their only moments in the sun. Maybe the mystique has something to do with seeing games in beautiful ballparks right on top of the action. Or maybe it relates somehow to the rebirth naturally associated with spring itself. Whatever it is, we seem to be hooked.
And we seem to develop a severe case of amnesia. We forget all about last year’s disappointment and how our team let us down – again. Opening Day arrives and we are just as giddy as we’ve always been, full of hope and promise, certain that this is “The Year.” So what if our star player is getting older and can’t do what he used to do. Who cares if our starting rotation has more holes than Augusta National. It matters not if our team starts 10-0 or 0-10. It is a new season, our team is reborn, and they cannot possibly disappoint us forever.
Then it happens. The team ends a dreadful road trip 1-8 or another pitcher goes on the disabled list and we realize this is not “The Year” after all. The season isn’t over yet, maybe it’s only June or July, but this team just doesn’t have what it takes. Fan Appreciation Day is, once again, the only thing left to look forward to. We get that empty feeling in the pit of our stomachs and we are forced, once again, to confront those four words all sports fans dread – “wait ’til next year.”
But each spring it is precisely those words, so difficult to face last season, that make baseball unique. No matter how awful or fantastic last season was, every March the clouds part, the sun comes out, and the grass is freshly mowed. And every year a bunch of wide-eyed young kids, and a bunch of veteran fans, stumble out of bed, wipe the sleep from their eyes, and prepare to begin anew their quest to fulfill our dreams. It is refreshing, cleansing, and keeps us coming back year after year.