Thursday April 2nd, 2009

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Bronson Arroyo is already among the more unique players in baseball. His long blonde hair is swept back and falls down his neck, giving him a rock-star look that is not at all surprising for a 32-year-old guitarist who has released a rock album. On the mound he has proved to be among the most durable pitchers in the game; over the past four seasons only the recently retired Greg Maddux made more starts (136) than Arroyo (135).

But at this time of year, as players prepare to break camp and head north for the start of the season, what really sets Arroyo apart is this: He'd be perfectly happy to stay even longer.

This is likely due to the fact that for the last three years he has spent spring training living on his boat, a 50-foot Sea Ray called Nasty Hook that he keeps moored a couple hours away from the Reds' training camp in Sarasota. "We bring guys out, cook some steaks, just have fun," says Arroyo. These good times make it easy to understand Arroyo's resistance to pick up anchor at the end of every spring. Leaving, he says, is "kind of a bummer."

Not for almost everyone else in baseball. Yankees outfielder Johnny Damon voiced the thoughts of most players last week when asked if he was ready to be done with spring training: "I've been ready."

Spring training has always felt tediously long, but this year, thanks to the World Baseball Classic, it is even longer. Camps have been extended for an extra week this season, and baseball's April 6 Opening Day -- there is one game on April 5 (Phillies-Braves), but the traditional full-slate of games (13 this year) is the next day -- is the latest for a non-strike-shortened season since 1992. As a result, baseball is headed for its longest season ever, with the World Series scheduled to finish in November for just the second time ever (the only other one being in 2001, when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks put the season on hold for a few days). As a result, players are spending more time playing games that don't matter while they're already physically and mentally prepared for the ones that do. And some are starting to feel like they're wasting not just their time but some of their peak period of health and enthusiasm playing meaningless games.

"I've thought they should [reduce the number of games] for a while," said Phillies pitcher Chad Durbin. "But I don't get paid to think."

As much as players lament the boredom of mind-numbingly repetitive workouts before the exhibition schedule begins, they're more concerned about wasting their peak period of freshness as the exhibition schedule, which often reaches 30 games or more, winds down. Brewers catcher Jason Kendall said that he -- like most players he knows -- only needs "two to three weeks" to get his timing back at the plate and said even most pitchers are ready to go well before camp ends.

Aaron Harang of the Reds agrees. "You're supposed to come into spring training ready to go," says Harang. "It's not like it used to be where you came in to get in shape. Now you're supposed to be ready to throw a couple innings within the first week. Right now we just have to wish and wait for spring training to get over with."

Even veteran managers such as Lou Piniella of the Cubs admit to having difficulty game-planning for such a lengthy spring. "We've got to make sure we don't overplay our regulars, but at the same time you have to do just enough work to have them ready by Opening Day," Piniella says. How to do that? Piniella, entering his 22nd season as a big-league manager after an 18-year playing career, shrugs his shoulders. "This is some uncharted waters. I've never had a spring training with 39 games before."

Even in a normal year, teams are asked to play a lengthy preseason schedule. Major League Baseball schedules 27 games for each team and clubs are free to add more games on either end of their official schedule for revenue-generating purposes or simply to get their players more experience in game situations (hence the proliferation of matchups with local college teams at the start of spring training and exhibitions with fellow big league clubs in their regular-season ballparks right before Opening Day).

The collective bargaining agreement mandates that pitchers and catchers report 45 days prior to the start of the season, and position players 40 days in advance. As it stands right now, players report for spring training in mid-February, receive just a couple of days off during the six weeks they're in camp (Damon sounded almost jealous when he said, "I heard the Tigers got four Thursdays off in a row"), and then begin an arduous regular season in which they play 162 games in 183 days, a number which is part of the CBA.

Playing so many games in so few days is daunting, and that wear and tear certainly has an impact on players' performances. With so few off-days, players are forced to travel almost non-stop, which further wears down their minds and bodies and has an inevitable impact on performance. Harang says it's the travel, as much or more than the scant number of off-days, that players complain about. It isn't uncommon for teams to fly all night, crisscrossing the country, only to arrive in a new city, often in a different time zone, and have another game that night.

In the end, there may not be much that can be done to fix the problem. The number of games in the regular season will not be reduced, mostly because of the lost revenue that would result, and the season would stand almost no chance of being extended because the union would have to approve any additional games -- and this is a group that has almost completely eradicated doubleheaders from the schedule. Additionally, postseason dates are determined as much by television as by the day on the calendar, so the postseason won't be pushed back at all.

Therefore it would seem that the only avenue for change is to reduce the number of games in spring training and perhaps start the season a little earlier. Katy Feeney, Major League Baseball's senior vice president in charge of scheduling, says, "Everything's always open to change, but right now there's no talk of changing it," she says, citing the impact that too many off-days could have on a pitching staff that's used to pitching with consistent regularity. "We don't want to start too early in March or end too late in November. That would put you in times where it's just not right [weather-wise] to play baseball."

Feeney points out that MLB has made every effort to schedule early-season games in warm weather climates or domes to combat the often brutal weather punishing many big league cities at this time of year. But even that has its drawbacks because then those teams have fewer home dates later in the season. "It's just the timing," she says. "You can't win."

In the meantime, the players will be forced to train their bodies as much for the 162 games they'll play that matter as for the ability to withstand having less than a month off total from now through September. Perhaps that's why Kendall speaks for almost everyone (except, of course, Arroyo) when he says, "Opening Day can't get here fast enough."

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