Embracing the Romance of Spring Training

Without romance, spring training is dull at best and ridiculous at worst. The romance is the only reason we bother to watch spring training games.
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Spring training invites romance. It’s the basis of the seasonal vocabulary, all rebirth and growth and optimism. But this invitation is incidental: Spring training, if it is going to be at all enjoyable, requires romance.

If you are not romantic about the idea of grown men performing basic stretches in workout shorts, it will be insufferable. If you are not romantic about oddly positioned photography from beat writers at a distance, it will mean nothing. If you are not romantic about games with a steady stream of substitutions for players you’ve never seen, there is no reason to watch. Without romance, spring training is dull at best and ridiculous at worst.

Which is the point. The romance is the key. It’s the answer to the question of why someone should bother to watch; it’s the best answer that baseball has for this, February is better here than April or July or even October. No one needs much of an answer for those months. There’s not even much of a question. It’s all self-explanatory: Someone watches MLB in-season because they want to see a win, or because they think the game will be good, or because they’re with other people who are watching. There is no mystery.

But February is different. You cannot watch for a win, because a win does not mean anything, because none of this means much of anything. You cannot watch a good game. (There are no “good” games.) You cannot reliably watch for a particular player; if he’s in the starting lineup, he’ll be out soon, and even when he’s in, it’s in an unfamiliar context, with different incentives and motivations. You cannot watch because you’re with other people who are watching, because you’re probably alone at your desk and it’s probably 2 p.m. on a Tuesday. You can watch because you care. You can watch because you’re romantic about it. The question matters, for once, and the answer is fundamentally satisfying.

In-season baseball is often differentiated from February baseball as “real baseball”, which is not exactly subtle about its judgement of spring training: It is not real. It has some real questions—who will break camp, who will be named starting shortstop, who will arrive in the best shape of his life—but those are made real only by the fact that their main tie is to April instead of February. It’s “real” when it counts. The rest runs on its romance.

There’s not much that is able to crack this illusion. It’s not full-on make-believe, but it certainly feels close to a fantasyland, all sunshine and day baseball and low stakes. It’s not exactly fake baseball, but at its best, it can feel like baseball with no consequences. (When winning and losing don’t necessarily mean anything, what’s the worst that can happen?) If “real baseball” does break into spring training—if, say, the sport’s biggest scandal in more than a decade invites continuous conversation—it only serves to underscore how little else there is to focus on in spring training. This is not “real baseball.” This is a romantic ideal of baseball.

The illusion is mighty. But under all the romance, the baseball is still real, even if it doesn’t count, and the reminder of this fact comes in the one event that can both create its own real question and demand an immediate answer—injury. The possibility of injury is a constant for any baseball, of course, “real” or not. But spring training injuries strike at a pressure point. They redefine the terms of the romance. They serve as a reminder that all of this is real, in one way or another, and that there are always consequences, even if not openly advertised. A spring training injury is the start of a reckoning: The seasonal optimism must be recalibrated. The depth chart is used not for wish-casting, but for a necessary roster move, and “real baseball” becomes more deadline than destination.

Some level of this holds true for any injury announced in spring training. But Luis Severino’s—out for the season with Tommy John, after being shut down with forearm soreness last week—is particularly, and cruelly, representative. After missing most of last year, Severino was the object of no small amount of springtime hope, dreams of what he could do and would be in a full season now. To see him cut down again so quickly is to watch the idealistic bubble burst and to reckon with a fresh set of real questions. From afar, it hurts in a way that is particular to spring, a forced reminder of why anyone should bother to pay attention at all in February: You watch because you care. You watch because you’re romantic about it.