As the sun sets on the MLB offseason, my vessel is flooded with emotion despite the fact that I no longer get to participate in spring training.
When I recall what early February is like for baseball players and their families, I am forced into a contemplative and nostalgic state.
I can remember fleeing Southern California for Port Charlotte, Fla., in 2001 for Texas Rangers spring training, leaving my then wife and two young children behind.
Imagine the dichotomy; I’m giddy with the anticipation of sinking a fresh-from-the-box pair of spikes into a top quality batter’s box and inhaling the smell of chalk, dirt and grass, eloquently blended. At the same time, I’m emotionally wrecked from the lingering trauma of reluctantly releasing the embrace of my baby boy’s arms.
For my family, they said farewell knowing that not only did they lose me physically, but mentally as well. They understood that I’d be focused on earning a living competing at the land’s highest level for the next eight months, thereby leaving less energy and attention for them. This was the part of baseball that Lisa, my then-wife, told me she resented most.
For the single men of baseball, they disappear from their hometowns into the horizon with few things on their mind unrelated to baseball. They arrive in towns like Scottsdale, Fort Lauderdale and Tampa stricken with a newfound power otherwise reserved for rock stars and royalty.
The levels of job security for MLB athletes heading to camp are highly variable. Some players arrive with long-term, guaranteed contracts in place. For this group, spring training is reserved for getting into baseball shape, bonding with teammates, and setting up shop in the cities they will soon inhabit. It’s time to relearn and adapt once again to the baseball lifestyle that was purposely forgotten on Nov. 1.
For many (usually young players) the Cactus and Grapefruit leagues are proving grounds. They are an opportunity to make an impression with the front offices and field staffs. The idea is simple: kick ass in your limited audition so that when playing for your MLB club’s AAA affiliate, your name is the first that pops up when an injury or failure to perform occurs in the Majors.
I had this experience precisely upon arriving in Lakeland, Fla., as a member of the Detroit Tigers organization in February of 1999. I went into camp with an outside chance to make the club, but exploded into a hot streak and performed well enough that I made the club as of April 1.
I remember the day when Tigers GM Randy Smith and manager Larry Parrish called me into the office and gave me the news. I tried to hide my joy, but it spilled out. There is nothing quite like finding out you’ve fulfilled a life-long dream.
I’ve also had the experience of trying to keep a job in camp. I was coming off a quality year with the Texas Rangers in 2002, but we had acquired Carl Everett and Juan Gonzalez in the offseason which crowded the outfield and made at-bats significantly more difficult to come by.
I was informed of the team additions earlier in the offseason so I trained like a madman through the winter months. As I left for camp in early February, I had one thing on my mind; to prove to our front office that it was a mistake to bring in those guys. Unfortunately, my mission was unsuccessful. I had a crappy March and entered the season as a utility outfielder, which meant I would be playing all three positions instead of my preference as the everyday center fielder.
As players’ children come of age and family dynamics change, so does the experience of spring training. Additional factors on and off the field make for a plethora of possible outcomes and there’s always the possibility you’ll see your name involved in a trade, unless of course you have the contractual protection of a no-trade clause.
As of February, whether you’re ready to leave home or not, it’s time to man up. Pitchers and catchers report mid-month and whatever is going on at home melts away.
Players will take the next six weeks to see who heads north with the club, and in what capacity. Bonds will be formed, hearts will be broken, and character will be built.
Even though I won’t get to carry my gear into the clubhouse and hug my teammates this spring training, I can’t wait.