Hope, Aristotle divined, is the dream of a waking man. America, at
midwinter in a post-9/11 world, challenged that notion last week.
¬∂ Hundreds of bits of a spacecraft still lay strewn along miles
of the Bible Belt. Duct tape, the classic punch line of handyman
humor, suddenly became a serious staple of civilian defense
against dirty bombs that might come from unknown agents of war.
And the words weapons of mass destruction rolled too easily off
the tongue, included in the foreboding drumbeat of news from the
Middle and Far East. While much of the country listened for
diversionary sounds of encouragement, the too-familiar scrape of
a snow shovel upon the driveway or the chattering of teeth
against February's chill only mired them in a deeper state of
blue. ¬∂ And just then, last Friday, on Valentine's Day morning as
it happened, hope, as Aristotle knew it, made its presence felt
in Mesa, Ariz. The Chicago Cubs' pitchers, whose degree of
wakefulness in recent years could be questioned by philosophers
of absolutely no repute, began their first workout of spring
training. Hey, with hope--as with love, charity and a good
full-bodied red wine--no helping is too modest or too
insignificant to nourish the spirit.
In groups of a half dozen or so, the Cubs climbed a conjoined
strand of mounds and, before tossing baseballs, began snapping
hand towels. The pitchers held the towels in their throwing
hands, wound up as if delivering a pitch and, without letting go
of the cotton cloth, snapped it on the mitt of a kneeling catcher
at the foot of the mound. The towel snapped only when the pitcher
properly extended his arm motion. It was one of those crazy
sights you see only in spring training.
What a fitting start: the Cubs actually working on throwing in
the towel. This is the 95th consecutive year that they will try
to win the franchise's third world championship. Oh for 94 isn't
a slump. It's a legacy. It is the DNA of this franchise. The Cubs
treat a fan's heart the way Lucy handles the football for Charlie
"In all my years in baseball," said new manager Dusty Baker,
teeing it up, "I've never seen a group of stud pitchers like
this--6'5", 6'6"...hard throwers."
Baker, you might recall, last season managed the San Francisco
Giants, who led the clinching game of the World Series by five
runs--and lost. No team, not even the Cubbies, had ever done
If baseball is but a diversion anyway, nothing sends us down the
rabbit hole of possibilities more than spring training. And the
good news--Lord knows we'll take any dose of it these days--is
that spring training, which inspired mostly fear and loathing a
year ago, once again is worthy of all the hope we can muster.
Last spring played out darkly under the threat of a looming work
stoppage that many feared might wipe out the 2003 season, too.
And even if baseball did play the full schedule, commissioner Bud
Selig, like the Grinch who stole Christmas, had drained hope from
the season before it began with his constant bleatings about
"competitive balance," warning us that only a handful of rich
teams could win the World Series. Teams without money were so
useless, Selig declared that he wanted to eliminate two of them
and had support from other owners to get rid of more.
Of course, because baseball has the regenerative powers of a
salamander's tail, the improbable happened. First, owners and
players signed off on a four-year labor agreement last August,
ensuring a run of 11 uninterrupted seasons for the first time
since Curt Flood challenged the reserve clause in 1970. And then
the Anaheim Angels, a Disneyfied version of the Cubs, won the
first world championship in their 41-year history. The Angels did
so with a $62 million payroll, less than half of what their
first-round playoff victims, the New York Yankees, spent and less
than 13 other clubs, as well.
Moreover, Anaheim had won only 75 games the previous season while
finishing 41 games out of first place. The Grinch suddenly had
nothing to say. Competitive balance? The baseball world turns
over faster than ever these days. Consider:
--Six different National League teams reached the World Series in
the past six years, the first time that's happened since 1986
--Each of the last two world champions (the Angels and the Arizona
Diamondbacks) had never won a World Series, the first time that's
happened in back-to-back seasons since 1923 (Yankees) and '24
--Ten of the last 30 teams to reach the World Series did so after
finishing the previous year with a losing record.
--Six of the last 15 world champions won the Series the year after
a losing season. In the first 83 World Series only seven teams
fashioned that kind of turnaround.
That's why even the Cubs, winners of only 67 games last year, can
see October all the way from Arizona. The commissioner should
have sounded more like Updike than Seuss: "Dreams come true;
without that possibility, nature would not incite us to have
them." That's why fans in Detroit could practically use their
newspaper to melt the ice on their front steps, so warm was this
recent boldface greeting: TIGERS START CLIMB TO RESPECTABILITY.
Only a cynic would remind you that the Tigers lost 106 games last
season, then shed their best hitter, their only All-Star, their
closer and their best starting pitcher.
Is there a better place to dream than in the light and color of
Florida and Arizona in February and March? Into the brightness in
Fort Myers, Fla., for instance, lobster-faced faithful fresh from
New England's winter gloom quite literally have to squint to see
their Red Sox. They are essentially Cubs fans without the sense
of humor, but it is damned hard to be a Calvinist when you're
wearing a Hawaiian shirt and have a paper umbrella in your drink.
Spring training is the perfect place for renewal. Only
Washington, D.C., the capital of our nation and of reinventing
oneself, has more plastic surgeons per capita than Florida.
(Arizona ranks ninth in the nip-and-tuck battle.) Four hundred
and ninety years after Ponce de Leon reported to Florida,
40-year-old retired pitcher David Cone did so, too, last
week--and in search of the very same thing. He is in the New York
Mets' camp, one of many nonroster elders looking for one last
shot. Doug Jennings, a 38-year-old outfielder who's played in
Mexico, Japan, Long Island and Omaha since he last appeared in
the big leagues 10 years ago, worked out with the Florida Marlins
last week. Phil Hiatt, a 33-year-old third baseman, is in camp
with the Cubs, his ninth organization in nine years.
They keep coming, these snowbirds in spikes, because, as Updike
knows, every once in a while one of these dreams comes true. It
was in Florida, after all, that a scattershot lefthanded pitcher
for the Los Angeles Dodgers decided one day six years into his
career to stop trying to throw every pitch with all of his might.
It was a split-squad road game in Orlando, without the major
league coaching staff on hand, when he figured he had nothing to
lose. "Take the grunt out of it," is how he later described his
epiphany. The Twins batters couldn't touch him. Sandy Koufax, the
great Koufax of the Hall of Fame, was born on that day in 1961.
"I came back," he once wrote of that trip, "a different pitcher."
Forty-one years later, a 20-year-old righthander from Venezuela
pitched in a split-squad game for the Angels in Arizona. The
major league coaches weren't there, either. But the minor league
instructors who were came back talking breathlessly about the kid
the way a tourist would the Grand Canyon. It was one of only
three spring games in which he pitched. Six months later, when
Francisco Rodriguez was called up to the big leagues, his
teammates couldn't even recall his being in camp. The Angels
know, however, that they wouldn't have won the World Series
Maybe now, on a back field in some team's camp, the next Koufax
or the next K-Rod throws in the brilliant sunshine of spring
training, as if warming in an incubator. Just the hint of such a
possibility is a great part of the magic of this time of year.
Spring training can only give birth to dreams. Whether they live
or die is ultimately left to the regular season.
At least this spring we know the 162-game schedule will be
played. We know that the defending American League Central
champion Minnesota Twins will not be contracted. We know that as
many as four players--Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, Fred McGriff
and Ken Griffey Jr.--might hit their 500th home run. (As recently
as 1964, only four players in the history of the game had reached
that plateau.) We know that Roger Clemens needs only seven
victories for 300. We know that at least one team that lost more
games than it won last year will earn the surprise team
designation, and maybe a whole lot more.
The familiar iconography of spring training brings assurance.
There is the palm tree, a symbol of steadfastness against
trouble, described in the Koran as having sprung from the residue
of the clay that made Adam, esteemed by the Romans as spoils for
victorious gladiators and worshiped by relief pitchers for the
spot of shade it offers on the outfield berm of quaint and sunny
Holman Stadium in Vero Beach, Fla., winter home of the Dodgers
for 55 years.
Westward stand the cacti, most of which bloom only in the spring
and only briefly, some for just a matter of hours--much like the
annual spring training phenom who can't hit a lick once the
Among the saguaros last Thursday morning, in a Phoenix public
park where the Athletics train, you would have found Barry Zito,
the 2002 AL Cy Young Award winner, loosening his arm. Imagine
Placido Domingo working on his chops at a karaoke bar or Tiger
Woods pounding a bucket or two at the local muni goat track, and
you understand the beautiful unpretentiousness of spring
training. Zito wore yellow knee-high socks, green shorts, a
yellow shirt and a cap with the tag still dangling from a vent
hole. Here was a kid playing catch, or as Wordsworth wrote, "the
glory and the freshness of a dream."
When Zito was done throwing, after he had returned to the
high-school-caliber locker room through the glass door bearing
the motherly reminder no cleats, a reporter asked him what he
thought of spring training. "It's cool," he said. "After the
winter it's nice to get back to work, get back together with all
the buds again." And then he found a word for it that's just
perfect this year. "It's cleansing," he said.
Don't try telling me that spring training and its loose,
disjointed games are meaningless. The meaning this year is
thicker than SPF 30 lotion on a Milwaukee Brewers fan in Phoenix.
Spring training, which always did seem to come at exactly the
right time, has its groove back.
It is once again an old-fashioned ritual, and for a game that
lingers in our hearts more because of what we think it was rather
than what it is, that is a very good thing, especially in these
So go ahead: Hope all you want.
Read Tom Verducci's weekly Inside Baseball column every Tuesday
and check out si.com's photo gallery of spring training through
the years at si.com/baseball.
All Things SPRING
The Grapefruit and Cactus leagues by the numbers
Players in major league camps this spring: 1,700
Players who will be on Opening Day rosters: 750
Spring training credentials issued by the New York Yankees (who
signed slugger Hideki Matsui in the offseason) to Japanese media:
Credentials issued by the Yankees to non-Japanese media: 114
Total spring training credentials issued by the Montreal Expos:
Average attendance at Scottsdale Stadium for San Francisco Giants
exhibition games last spring: 14,632
Teams that had an average attendance of less than 14,632 during
the 2002 season: 3 (Expos, Florida Marlins, Tampa Bay Devil Rays)
Players in the San Diego Padres' camp who were not yet born when
45-year-old teammate Jesse Orosco attended his first major league
spring training, with the New York Mets, in 1979: 13
Cost of the new spring training site, Surprise Recreation Campus,
in Surprise, Ariz., used by the Kansas City Royals and the Texas
Rangers: $48.3 million
Percentage of the cost paid by the Royals and the Rangers: 0
Capacity of Surprise Stadium: 10,500
Population of Surprise in 1995: 10,187
Wins for the Baltimore Orioles in 29 exhibition games last
Wins for the Orioles in 77 regular-season games after the AllStar
break last year: 25
With a solid spring, these five prospects could be in lineups on
VICTOR MARTINEZ, C, INDIANS
In 454 career minor league games, the switch-hitting Martinez,
24, has more walks (210) than strikeouts (189). He was the MVP in
the Class A Carolina League (2001) and Double A Eastern League
('02), prompting Cleveland G.M. Mark Shapiro to say, "We feel
he's going to be an AllStar." If Martinez refines his mechanics
behind the plate in spring training, he could be Cleveland's
Opening Day backstop.
MARK TEIXEIRA, 3B, RANGERS
Teixeira, 22, is regarded as the best hitting prospect in
baseball: a big (6'3", 220 pounds) switch-hitter with premium
power, impressive plate discipline and the ability to make
consistent contact. His emergence has forced Hank Blalock,
another well-regarded 22-year-old third base prospect for the
Rangers, to take ground balls at second base this spring.
(Teixeira will also try his hand at first base.)
JESSE FOPPERT, RHP, GIANTS
Only 20 months after being drafted in the second round out of the
University of San Francisco, this 22-year-old with a mid90s
fastball is competing for a spot in the Giants' rotation. Foppert
blew through three minor league levels over the past two years,
finishing 2002 in Triple A, where he had 14 starts and fanned 109
batters in 79 innings. His stuff may be good enough to overcome
his lack of experience.
JOSE REYES, SS, METS
Even though he's only 19, Reyes might be the Mets' shortstop on
Opening Day; otherwise he'll start the year at Triple A. The
young Dominican is a slashing switch-hitter with speed (the Mets
think he has 20-home-run potential) and major-league-ready
defensive skills--an impact player waiting to happen. The only
question is when.
LYLE OVERBAY, 1B, DIAMONDBACKS
When Arizona traded power-hitting first baseman Erubiel Durazo to
the A's in December, slashing payroll wasn't the only thing it
had in mind: Overbay, 26, has developed into a prized prospect.
While Durazo may blast more home runs, the lefthanded Overbay
(who hit 19 in the best of his four minor league seasons) is a
hitting machine with gap power who hasn't batted less than .332
as a pro.
February and March?
right time, has its groove back.