In the latitudes where I live, the traditional signal of winter’s end is visual—a robin alighting in the grass, pulling a worm from thawing soil. But for me, the spring of 2017 announced itself with two sounds. One was the pleasant rustling a warm breeze makes when it flows through palm trees. The other was the solid whap…whap…whap of baseballs hitting catchers’ gloves.
I was in Florida for a golf trip with some friends last week, and the golf ended on the same day that the sports page conveyed some news: “Pitchers and catchers report to baseball spring training camps today.” I’ve always found this phrase very enticing, especially when I was stuck in the snow back home. So I decided to spend a couple of days observing. I would have gone to see my hometown club, the Washington Nats, in their new facility in West Palm Beach. But the facility was so new that it wasn’t finished. A security guard told me that spectators would not be admitted for several days.
So I motored ten miles up I-95 to Jupiter’s Roger Dean Stadium, joint home of the St. Louis Cardinals and the Miami Marlins, who are the only team in baseball to head north for spring workouts. I knew I was in the right spot when I saw a line of a six or eight Cardinal fans, decked out in team regalia, sitting on lawn chairs by the players’ gate, basking in the sun, hoping for autographs.
Roger Dean Stadium is a complex with a dozen practice diamonds arrayed beyond its outfield walls. The Marlins’ clubhouse and fields are on the third-base side and the Cardinals are on the first-base side. The gatekeepers to this greenery are gray-haired men, seasonal workers attired in sky-blue polo shirts with floral prints that say “STAFF” on the back. Their job includes wanding everyone for metal, a sad sign of the times we live in.
But it’s a cheerful process. The guy who checked me in also asked female spectators to give him a hug after he’d checked them for guns and knives. They complied. Perhaps they were too old to know they were being harassed. Or maybe they were just so happy to be in Florida with fellow Cardinal fans that they felt like hugging someone.
What you see inside is grown men doing baseball drills they’ve been doing since they were little boys. On one diamond, a group of five Cardinal catchers strolled in. A woman behind the chain-link fence said, “Hi, Yadi,” and Yadier Molina gave her a smile. The catchers gathered around a coach who reviewed for them the Cardinal way to pounce on a bunt and throw to each base. They pantomimed the correct footwork. Then the coach rolled mock bunts in front of the plate and the catchers took turns scrambling after them and throwing to first, second and third, where other coaches waited to catch their throws and drop the balls into gray plastic trash cans. Molina, a pretty good bet for first-ballot election into the Hall of Fame, took his turn with the rookies. That's Yadi, at left above.
On the opposite side of the complex the next day, I watched a Marlins coach instruct a group of pitchers on the art of fielding ground balls at the mound and throwing to the bases. “Protect your moneymaker,” he told them, meaning catch the ball in the glove hand and don’t risk an injury to the pitching hand. The Marlins pitchers seemed to take this to heart. I saw a couple of them bobble ground balls, but no one dinged his moneymaker.
On other diamonds, you could see pitchers practicing holding phantom runners on second, or tossing pick-off throws to first. The players spent a lot of time just standing around, like the Marlins in the top picture, watching one of their teammates practicing looking dangerously at a runner on second. It’s probably good practice for a game where the action comes in fitful bursts and patience is a requirement.
The spectators are part of the show at this stage of spring training. At the Marlins complex, 86-year-old Jack McKeon, who managed the Marlins’ World Series winner in 2003, was sitting in a golf cart chatting with a woman from Japan. She was a fan of Miami's Chinese pitcher, Wei Yin Chen, who once hurled for her home town team, the Chunichi Dragons, in the Japan League. She posed for me, unfurling a towel with the Dragons’ name it. Exactly how she got to Jupiter I never found out.
A lot of the fans were multi-generational families. You could pick out the grandfather and the grandmother, probably retirees living in Florida, and the visiting parents and grandchildren, down during a winter school break, all standing behind a chain link fence, watching a coach throw batting practice to some minor leaguers. The kids hawk autographs, even though in some cases they might not know the player or manager their elders prompt them to go after. It doesn’t matter. The kids show off the autographs they’ve collected, showing off gap-toothed grins as well, because they’re at the age when teeth keep falling out. And baseball renews itself.
I passed by a trio of much older fans, fans for whom there is no tooth fairy if a molar falls out. I heard the words, “I’ll bet you a thousand dollars,” and I stopped to eavesdrop. The argument was over the way that Joe DiMaggio, in his retirement years, asked the Yankees to have the public address announcer identify him when he took the field at the annual Old Timers’ game. “The greatest Yankee of them all,” one guy said. “The greatest living baseball player,” another insisted. Somehow it was decided that the second opinion was the correct one. And somehow, no money changed hands.
“But, hey, you know who was great,” the third guy interjected. “Willie Mays. He could beat you so many ways. With his glove, with his arm, with his speed, with his bat…” Heads nodded, and I moved on without finding out if another imaginary grand was wagered on who was better, the Say Hey Kid or Joltin' Joe.
It's easy, I know, to get romantic about baseball. It is in fact a business. I know that the pitchers and catchers, before taking the field for drills, were scheduled to be taking drug tests to make sure they weren't illegally enhancing their moneymakers or other appendages. And I know that the dreams of a lot of the kids I saw in Jupiter will end obscurely in some minor league town when they discover no one wants them any more. I don't care. For decades I have been feeling a wistful pang upon reading that phrase, "Pitchers and catchers report..." In 2017, the sun was out, the temperature was hovering around 80, and I was glad I was there.