By David Roth
There are men running around in the outfield. Not some beer-braised bro-dog bleacher escapee evading security guys on a dare, not security guys chasing said bro-dogs because it is their job to do so. Nothing that dramatic, even: just baseball players, in uniform, huffing and puffing and sort-of-sprinting from one foul line to the other. The game goes on while they do this.
This, at least in part, is more or less what getting in shape for baseball season looks like on television -- lazy games, rusty players, and in whatever situations demand it, that higher-speed corner-to-corner pacing by players getting their team-mandated running in. How beautiful or how goofy, how ramshackle or how scrubbily great this all looks is up to you, of course. The baseball, as a general rule, isn't great: much granitic backhanding by catchers not yet up to much in the way of footwork; the sudden explosion in every direction of an overmatched strikeout victim and the collapsed shoulders of a longshot meatballing his way down to the minor league camp; errors and flubs and a general opaque cloud of brainfart. This is why they have Spring Training.
But, but: it is still cold outside. There is freezing rain on my window as I write this. So even Chris Snyder and Miguel Olivo and the legions of RBI Baseball-bodied lifers who would love to be Chris Snyder or Miguel Olivo doing that running from foul line to foul line -- even that, even this goofy simulacrum of running happening in the background of the sort-of-baseball that's getting played in Florida and Arizona -- all of it looks, honestly, pretty freaking great at the moment.
This is not to argue that late February baseball is in any way superior or preferable to the baseball we'll see in a couple months, or during the pennant races once the weather starts to get cold again. It isn't, it really isn't, but yet there's something uniquely comforting and otherwise good about the experience of watching Spring Training baseball. Part of it, maybe, is how bad it is.
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Yes, that looks and sounds wrong and willfully contrarian and silly. It should be clear that I'm a soft touch and an easy mark on this, especially after a long winter without baseball, but also in general. While it will be great to trade Spring Training Baseball for actual Major League Baseball when that happens, though, there's a special pleasure that comes with watching these meaningless games. Much of it is that it's just, finally, baseball. But that's not quite all of it.
Watching baseball is not an experience that requires an especially arduous warm-up. There's no need to stretch, or research, or be strictly sober, even. It's something you learn how to do young, and refine in the repeated doing of it, but it's not difficult. Still, for all the different ways of doing it -- fans and super-fans and obsessives and background-noisers and day-trading fantasy workaholics -- there is, in this time of manifest and inescapable pre-relevance and catchers-running-in-the-outfield informality, a shared experience that mirrors that of the players on the field. For all the little dramas of Spring Training (which are of course not at all little to the grown-ass adults battling for the serious riches of minimum contracts and the maybe more significant riches of long-deferred dreams fulfilled), the great, goofy flatness of Spring Training baseball is finally a leveling thing -- we are all remembering how to do this, together.
And so of course this is, necessarily, not pretty. Pitchers are left to twist in desert breezes, watching so many doubles bounce off walls. Minor leaguers have microphones thrust into their faces after moments of mostly irrelevant heroism and devolve dully into the crustiest one-game-at-a-time-isms. Broadcasters hyperextend metaphors, sprain similes, or just let 45 seconds of dead air and random day-drunk fan shouts sizzle unattended during broadcasts. That and the all-filler lineups, the unmotivated pinch-running assignments and twilight auditions, that and the errors and the overdetermined swings and tryhard quad-A pop-ups and beefy invitation-to-Spring-Training sliders and the rest of the whole goofy-casual spectacle. This is baseball, and that's obviously great, but it's also not quite baseball, and it's decidedly not quite great by the standards of the baseball we know. It's better than not-baseball, surely, but also only what it is.
So ease into it. Take a few innings on, and then take a few innings off. Or maybe, that day, you don't make the trip and watch something else, or read something else, or just otherwise get okay with the fact that you aren't really feeling it yet, because there's snow on the ground or because there's never really a good enough excuse to watch Hector Noesi pitch to Jack Cust, let alone during what is still technically winter. Call it veteran's discretion or manager's decision or being-an-adult-with-other-things-to-do or whatever you like. None of us are quite there, yet, on either side of the screen. It's nice to be getting started, getting loose, to think about what it will be like when the games count and the weather is baseball-appropriate and it all feels a little bit more like it should, like it usually does.
But it feels good, still, even if we're not quite loosened up or locked in or In The Best Shape Of Our Lives, yet. We're not really any more ready to watch than the guys running foul pole to foul pole are ready to play, and the experience of watching a Spring Training game is a reminder of that -- it feels weird and looks weird because it is weird, after all those cold, tight months of not-doing. Spring Training baseball, where the games don't matter and the players aren't the same and the fields and crowds and the stakes and collective attention spans are all smaller, feels different because it is different. It's not-quite-baseball, for all involved: a transition as halting and unhurried and un-hurryable as every other between seasons, and as awkward as any other creaky re-remembering of things semi-forgotten.
And this is fine. This tightness and awkwardness and the stumbles and short-armed flubs are good, even. It's natural, and there's time to get ready. We're on the field, at least, all of us, waking up, remembering how good it feels, getting ready to get ready. It feels strange, still, although of course it does. It feels good, mostly because we know it will feel better soon.
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Roth is a co-founder and editor of The Classical, the co-author of the Wall Street Journal's "Daily Fix" blog-column, the sole author of Vice's "Mercy Rule" column and a writer of things at GQ, New York Magazine, The Awl and some other places when there's time. He lives in New York, and is on Twitter.