Spring Training: Hope springs eternal

Along with Groundhog and Valentine Days, the month of February hosts another perennial event — the beginning of Major League Baseball’s “Spring Training.”

To baseball purists, the words “pitchers and catchers report” are the most beautiful words in the English language.

Spring training arrives just as the cold and dark of winter begins to wane, a sort of harbinger for the warm and sunny days on the horizon. For the baseball fan, the sights, sounds and smells of the game of baseball are once again stirring to life, bringing with it the hopes and promise of the oncoming season. In Boston, Red Sox fans anticipate the beginning of spring training so much that they line the streets around Fenway Park as the team’s equipment trucks leave the stadium, heading for the Sox spring home in Fort Myers, Fla.

Spring training typically begins in the middle of February, with teams reporting to either Florida (Grapefruit League) or Arizona (Cactus League).

Pitchers and catchers are the first to report, with the position players reporting a few days later. The first week is focused on physical training and limbering up, along with repetitive drills to sharpen the skills necessary to perform at the highly competitive major league level. Spring training sites are frequently multi-faceted, with numerous fields surrounding the main playing field. During a typical spring training day, all of the fields would be alive with activity, pitchers, hitters and fielders all having designated fields to report. During the month of March, teams engage in an actual schedule of games.

This is a critical period for veterans hoping to stay with the team, and rookies trying to make the opening day roster. Management uses these games as the basis for selecting the final roster as the teams move toward the beginning of the regular season in April.

March spring training games are unique in that the parks are usually small and intimate, giving fans the opportunity to get very close to the action on the field. Players are amenable to the crowds during the spring and fans often get the opportunity to interact with them. With the warm weather climates of both the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues, spring training games are a festive and party like atmosphere for the fans. Many people arrange vacations around a trip to their favorite team’s spring training site.

Spring training is almost as old as the game itself. In 1886, the Chicago White Stockings left the cold February of the Midwest and traveled to the warmer environs of Hot Springs, Arkansas, to prepare for the upcoming season. The Philadelphia Phillies were the first team to travel to Florida for spring training, prepping for the season in Jacksonville in 1889. Spring training in Florida began in earnest in 1915, with four teams training in the state, the actual birth of the “Grapefruit League.”

Reportedly, the moniker “Grapefruit League” originated when a Florida aviator was advertising a Daytona Beach golf course by dropping golf balls from an airplane.

Since the Brooklyn Dodgers were training in Daytona Beach, it was suggested by the advertiser to drop a baseball from the airplane into the waiting hands of Dodger manager, Wilbert Robinson, who was stationed on the pitching mound. The pilot of the airplane realized he had forgotten the baseball, but had a Florida grapefruit aboard, which he dropped from 525 feet in the air. Robinson attempted to catch the grapefruit, but it bounced off his shoulder and shattered as it hit the ground. Florida spring training has been known as the “Grapefruit League” ever since.

Spring training arrived in Arizona in 1946 when maverick Cleveland Indians owner Bill “As in Wreck” Veeck decided to move the Indians’ spring training home from Florida to Tucson, convincing the New York Giants to train in Arizona as well. Veeck was a forward thinker and he felt that it was only a matter of time before Major League Baseball would be expanding to the west coast and Arizona would be an ideal spring training site. Veeck’s favorite color was green, the color of money, and he believed that Arizona spring training had the potential of bringing team owners a financial windfall.

It took some time for the Cactus League to thrive, but currently 15 of the 30 MLB teams hold spring training in Arizona. As for the name Cactus League, I can only presume it originated from the proliferation of that leafless, prickly, plant found in the hot and dry Arizona desert.

Each year, questions abound for the 30 major league teams as they journey through spring training. Will the off-season trades and free-agent signings pan out? Will highly touted rookies produce? All the planning and development conducted during the winter now is transferred to the field of play. Back in December, the Los Angeles Angels signed Japanese superstar, Shohei Ohtani.

Known as the “Babe Ruth” of Japanese baseball, the 23-year old Ohtani is unique in that he is slated to be both a starting pitcher and the designated hitter for the Angels, a fete unheard of in contemporary Major League Baseball. Armed with a blistering fastball while on the mound and a powerful left-handed swing at the plate, Ohtani tore up the Japanese league as a pitcher and hitter. It will be interesting to see how Ohtani fares on this side of the Pacific.

The New York Yankees parted with manager Joe Girardi in the off-season, plucking former Yankee Aaron Boone out of the ESPN television booth to replace Girardi.

While Boone has no previous managerial experience, he comes from a solid baseball pedigree, his grandfather, father, and brother all former major leaguers. Those who know Boone say his baseball mind is sharper than a butcher’s cleaver. The Yankees also scored a big coup in the off-season by trading for Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton. Stanton hit 59 homeruns last year, while Aaron Judge hit 52 for the Yankees.

Could the “Bronx Bombers” be back?

Meanwhile, down in the Philadelphia camp, there is hope that new manager Gabe Kapler can harness the youthful roster and climb back into the upper tier of the NL East.

The knock on Kapler is that he is inexperienced as a major league manager, but inexperience didn’t stop Eagles’ coach Doug Pederson this past NFL season. Dunnstown’s Kliney Williams, still basking in the Eagles’ Super Bowl victory, can’t wait for the Phillies to get it rolling.

Pirate fan favorite Andrew McCutchen is now toiling out along the San Francisco Bay, but that didn’t prevent the ever optimistic Buc manager, Clint Hurdle, from declaring that he expects the Pirates to be in the thick of the NL Central and in the hunt for a possible playoff berth. Those words certainly bring hope to local Bucco fans Bill Lawless, John Gallagher and Tom Elling.

Oh, the beauty of spring training.

All the teams are full of hope and aspirations, and all are in first place.

In spring training, hope springs eternal!

Here’s hoping your favorite team is still in first place when the leaves turn color in late September.

Mike Rendos is a former Keystone Central School District counselor, a current Central Mountain High School assistant athletic director, and a longtime PIAA sports official.