Sports Nut

The Death of Spring Training

Smiling kids. Happy ballplayers. Deliver me from evil.

When Dan Shaughnessy’s Spring Training: Baseball’s Early Season arrived in my mailbox the other day, I had a natural inclination to pore through its pages. Then my heart sank. The book contains photographs of ballplayers stretching on the lawns of cute little ballparks where they stage the lazy spring exhibition games in the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues. The players are signing autographs for red-cheeked fans. More alarming, there are photos of children licking snow cones and AARPsters grinning in the grandstand. This is the most disturbing book I have read since The Shining.

What is it about spring training that reduces normally gruff sportswriters to the patois of travel brochures? Last week, Sports Illustrated gushed, “Is there a better place to dream than in the light and color of Florida and Arizona in February and March?” I wouldn’t know. See, I used to go to spring training in the 1970s when I was covering baseball for a newspaper in Fort Worth, Texas. In those days, the annual Florida sojourn wasn’t a family vacation—it was a place ballplayer and journalist alike went to escape his wife. I never saw any kids, can vaguely recall seeing some old people, although they didn’t look too happy, and I damn sure never saw any baseball games.

Here is what I did see. The Texas Rangers had moved to Arlington in 1972, and conducted spring training at Pompano Beach, Fla. The team headquarters was the Surf Rider, a dive that resembled a minimum-security halfway house. It was right on the beach, though, and therefore heavenly.

The spring training of my experience was not a family scene. The schedule for the Major League Baseball beat writer went as follows: Get up, gargle with English Leather, and stroll the beach. Then I’d return to my room at the Surf Rider with its mildewed walls and do an hour’s worth of research for the work day ahead. That amounted to studying the racing form to handicap the first five races at Gulfstream. After returning from the track, I’d report to Pompano Stadium, making sure to arrive late enough that the game would be over, and get a copy of the box score.

Next, I would locate Whitey Herzog, the manager, who by 5 p.m. would be located at the Surf Rider bar, actively anesthetizing his brain from the troubling occupational circumstances that confronted him. His prognosis for the upcoming season: “There’s no absolute guarantee that this team will come in last. Cleveland looks just as bad as us, and Milwaukee’s hardly any better. And look at the Angels. Other than Nolan Ryan, who’s ever heard of any of those guys? Our pitching staff will be healthy. That’s for sure. We don’t have anybody who throws hard enough to develop a sore arm.”

In 1973, Herzog was replaced by Billy Martin, who was too actively involved tickling the barmaid to talk much about baseball. So, under his regime, I simply wrote shorter stories. The routine never actually varied. I’d get a six-pack of Busch Bavarian 18-ouncers and go to work. When the six-pack was finished, so was the story. Then it was back to the Surf Rider bar, where the genuine pageantry of baseball spring training would be on full and open display.

Vince Lombardi had one rule for the players when he was coaching the Packers. If you’re out drinking, always sit at a table, never at the bar. In the minds of the public, the man at a table was a gentleman enjoying a cocktail. The guy at the bar was a souse, a toss-pot, a wino. The Rangers had a more lenient system. The bar was OK. The table was better. Under the table was better yet.

I learned about the little drinking cliques that exist among those involved with professional baseball. The managers and coaches drank scotch. The position players drank vodka or CC and Seven. The pitchers favored a concoction of everclear, 151 rum, and coffin polish. One hurler was probably ordering doubles the night when he went berserk and kicked in half the doors in the hotel. He spent the remainder of spring training living beneath the Atlantic Avenue pier, hiding from the law. Management was impressed. He would eventually pitch a perfect game.

The Surf Rider was always jammed with Canuck coeds, eager to meet big-league ballplayers. They certainly maintained no interest in sportswriters. So I would introduce myself under a variety of names. Ty Cobb. Mel Ott. Jackie Robinson. Like the team itself, my batting average always hovered around .217.

So, one can understand my absolute horror when I encounter a book like Baseball’s Early Season, something that paints wholesome features on the countenance of spring training. I remain optimistic that the movement to inflict theme-park wholesomeness into the proud hedonism of spring training, like the American wellness culture itself, is destined to go broke and die. Order must be restored.