How to Survive Until Spring Training

Something to pass the time is to look at Corey Seager's projections. (via Arturo Pardavila III)

Something to pass the time is to look at Corey Seager’s projections. (via Arturo Pardavila III)

Pitchers and catchers report … Are there four lovelier words in the language?

We’re just a month away from the traditional opening of spring training camps. But that’s a long time –- 31 days. What’s a baseball fan to do?

Here are 31 ideas. You’re welcome; it’s all part of the service.

1. Peruse the 2016 schedule. Discover, for example, that the National League Central winds up with a delicious 10 days of Cardinals, Cubs and Pirates playing each other almost exclusively. And that after Sept. 1, the defending champion Royals play no team tougher (by 2015 record) than the Twins. And that Game Six of the World Series is Election Night.

2. Reread Casey at the Bat, for the sheer baseball of it, while contemplating that even when it was written, more than a century ago:

Ten thousand eyes were on him
as he rubbed his hands with dirt
Five thousand tongues applauded
When he rubbed them on his shirt
Then while the writhing pitcher
Ground the ball into his hip….

Speed up the game, already!

3. Spend some time poring over a list of yearly batting champions, and shed a nostalgic tear.

“Batting champion” is a term mostly out of use. But time was, having the highest batting average in your league was a big deal. The best players won the batting titles. Over the first 19 years of the American League, the batting champ 16 times was either Nap Lajoie or Ty Cobb. Honus Wagner won two-thirds of the first dozen NL titles. Rogers Hornsby in his prime won six in a row; Ted Williams won that many also, with the first and the last separated by 17 years. Serious players, you’ll agree.

People kept track of who was leading on the last day of the season; would he sit out to preserve his average? Calculations went to the fourth decimal point. One year, Stan Musial, leading the National League in batting average, took the mound on the last day of the season to pitch to his closest pursuer, the Cubs’ Frank Baumholtz. People paid attention.

Today, we have many other meaningful ways to measure batters’ competence, and these have led to players and teams prioritizing skills other than the ability to produce the highest percentage of hits per official at-bat. Miguel Cabrera, who has led the AL in batting average four of the past five years, is a great hitter by any era’s definition. But otherwise, batting average titles are largely marginalized. Fine fellows all, I’m sure, but Dee Gordon, Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, Buster Posey, Jose Reyes and Carlos Gonzalez, the past six years’ batting champs in the NL, are not names that inspire the awe of their counterparts a century ago.

4. Try your hand at George Will’s 2015 Opening Day quiz. By the time this year’s version comes out in April, you’ll have better baseball-related things to occupy your mind.

5. As you try to tune out the blather from Iowa, New Hampshire and other precincts far removed from the Grapefruit and Cactus circuits, imagine the candidates as a ball team (there certainly are enough to cover all positions). Marco Rubio’s a promising young Cuban infielder (but does he have enough experience for the big leagues?). Chris Christie’s your sturdy catcher; no one will ever again call Yadier Molina slow of foot. Ted Cruz has fire, but there are questions about how he’d get along in the clubhouse. Jeb Bush has major league bloodlines, but is he past his prime? Hillary Clinton goes on the mound; she certainly has a wide variety of pitches, depending on which ballpark she’s in. Ben Carson needs only a toothpick to play the role of veteran manager who’s seen it all. (Or maybe … has anyone ever seen him and Dusty Baker in the same room?)

To make this work right, though, we really need a Steinbrenner-esque owner who’ll tell everyone what he thinks of the team in blunt terms. Any ideas?

Exploring MLB Expansion and Relegation
What if baseball expansion went beyond Portland and Montreal?

6. Adopt a team, and learn it. Make it your hobby. Your friends may know more about lots of things, but you can know more about one thing than anyone of your acquaintance.

At a holiday party last month, I found myself talking baseball with a man I’d just met. Turned out he shares my weird fascination with the 1954 Cleveland Indians, whose starting lineup, rotation and bullpen I know better than that of practically any 2015 team. I’ve never lived in Cleveland. I’ve never been a particular fan of the team. Baseball fandom is strange.

7. Learn some appropriate-to-the-season history. From William Zinsser’s fine 1989 book, Spring Training:

  • In the spring of 1888, the Washington Statesmen went to Jacksonville, Fla. to get in shape for the season. Their number included young catcher, Connie Mack, who later recalled that the players were turned away from local hotels as undesirable. Finally, they found one that would take them with the stipulation that they wouldn’t mingle with other guests or eat in the hotel dining room.
  • Spring training arrived in Florida for good in 1914, when the St. Louis Browns arranged for a 20-acre site near St. Petersburg called Coffee Pot Bayou. The team got it rent-free, with all holes filled and stumps removed.
  • Al Lang, for whom the local St. Petersburg spring training field eventually was named, was a Pittsburgh businessman who moved to St. Pete in the early 20th century, became mayor, and promoted Florida spring training, being largely responsible for teams congregating there. The stadium still stands, though it hasn’t hosted spring training baseball since 2008.

8. It’s always good to spice up a conversation with a Yogi Berra quote, especially when you come to a fork in the road and take it. Or when your friends suggest an evening at a sports bar and you remind them that it’s so crowded nobody goes there anymore.

So be prepared with just the right quote for any occasion. Polish up your stock of dandy lines that may or may not have come from the mouths of Yogi and other great orators of the game. A start:

“If you can do it, it ain’t braggin’” – Dizzy Dean

“Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” – Satchel Paige.

“It ain’t sex that’s troublesome, it’s staying up all night looking for it.” – Casey Stengel.

“There comes a time in every man’s life, and I’ve had plenty of them.” – Casey Stengel.

“You look up and down the (Mets’) bench and you say to yourself, ‘Can’t anybody here play this game.’” – Casey Stengel.

“Good pitching will beat good hitting any time, and vice versa.” — Bob Veale.

“The way to catch a knuckleball is to wait until it stops rolling and then pick it up.” – Bob Uecker.

“It ain’t over till it’s over.” – Yogi Berra

“Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” – Satchel Paige.

And if you’ve heard some of these before, well, it’s déjà vu all over again.

9. See how many members of the Hall of Fame you can name in 20 minutes.

10. Listen to Vin Scully call a game. Any game.

11. Read a great baseball novel, watch a great baseball movie. If you want a suggestion, try Bang the Drum Slowly, written or film version. It’s the middle book in Mark Harris’ trilogy featuring the fictional Henry Wiggin. The book has one of the finest endings you’ll ever read. The movie has Robert De Niro and Michael Moriarty.

12. Which five teams improved themselves most in the offseason? I mean, which four besides my Cubs? Share your views in the comments.

13. Who’s on first? Well, we could be talking about the Pirates. But this is more fun.

14. A friend of mine likes to discuss the game in now-dated baseball slang: “The wily southpaw twirler toed the turtleback after yielding two safeties ….” Someday, today’s clichés, uttered and written, will sound just as strange. Managers condition every outlook with “if we stay healthy.” Take vitamins! Writers invariably describe a sharp decline as “fell off a cliff.” Stay away from the edge! Announcers precede strategy pronouncements with “if you’re Ned Yost….” You’re not! And you never will be!

Share your favorite expressions-that-should-be-banned.

15. Maybe you already have your reservations and your sunscreen ready for your long-planned spring training tour of Port St. Lucie and Dunedin and Sarasota, or Mesa and Peoria and Surprise. But, this being a site that’s serious about probabilities, I calculate with 95 percent confidence that (a) you’re not going to do that this year and that (b) you want to do it someday.

So fantasize a little. Grab a spring training schedule and a map. How many camps could you visit? How many games could you see in x number of days? How would you get around?

16. Your mother threw away your baseball cards. Let’s take that as a given. But maybe, perhaps, in a cardboard box in a corner of the attic still lives your old APBA or Strat-O-Matic or All-Star baseball game. What a guilty pleasure it would be to pull it down and, with a few rolls of the dice or flicks of the spinner, recall the hours you spent with that game years ago.

17. Find a kid and a ball. Mix well.

18. Do research for your draft. If you’re serious about fantasy, I don’t have to remind you; you’re probably already putting yourself to sleep counting shortstops instead of sheep. Which reminds me of that oldie by Little Anthony and the Imperials, Tiers on My Pillow. Which leads us to:

19. Projections! The Steamer version is all there on our sister site, FanGraphs, which also has been serving up and analyzing ZiPS projections. It will not surprise you to learn that Mike Trout is projected to lead the world in wOBA, WAR, wRC+ and glowing articles, but there’s so much more to massage.

Example: We know that the Dodgers have the potential to be okay, good or very, very good, as do such of their young players as Yasiel Puig, Joc Pederson and Corey Seager. Which will they be, do the systems think? Ah, that’s the fun of playing with the numbers.

19. Invent a stat. The world of sabermetrics is full of serious mathematicians who can do wondrous things with data. I am as far from a Ph.D. in math as a Southern League utility infielder is from the Hall of Fame. But with all the information at our disposal on the internet, even we with the most modest numbers skills can find new ways to massage stats. As our Frank Jackson did on this site last week.

20. Memorize all the Series winners. As with the U.S. Presidents you learned in seventh grade, the list keeps getting longer, but I find that an every-10-years mnemonic makes it easier. Take the “fours”: 1904, no Series, because the leagues couldn’t agree to follow up the previous year’s inaugural. But then: 1914, because the Miracle Braves; 1924, because the Senators’ only title; 1934, because the Cardinals’ Gashouse Gang; 1944, the Cards again because the all-St. Louis Series and surely you didn’t expect the Browns; 1954, the Giants because Willie Mays’ catch; 1964, the Cardinals because Brock for Broglio; 1974, the A’s because Charlie Finley and the mustaches; 1984, the Tigers because I was there; 1994, no Series in the strike year; 2004, the Red Sox because Boston down three games to none in the ALCS; 2014, the Giants because, heck, that’s just 15 months ago.

21. Call a friend in a really cold northern city and talk baseball.

22. Wander through team web sites. All major league teams work off the same template, and they all have the basic information you’d expect: team press releases, schedules, park diagrams, ticket information. Dig down, though, and note local differences that reflect teams’ personalities and communities.

San Francisco devotes some space to its Junior Giants program, for Bay Area kids and coaches. There’s a Junior Giants Willie Mac Award, modeled after the one Giants players give one of their teammates each year. Seattle wants you to know that “The Moose is Loose,” and available to visit your next public or private gathering. The fifth-grader who won a 1990 contest to pick the team’s mascot is still honored by name in the Mariner Moose section of the site, although he’d be pushing 40 by now. On the Milwaukee Brewers’ site, you’ll find all you need to know about the 18th Annual Famous Racing Sausages 5K Run/Walk. It’s July 30 this year, if you want to put it on your calendar. Rain or shine.

23. Read the (deservedly) most famous newspaper game account ever, Red Smith’s on the Bobby Thomson game.

24. Watch an NBA game. Appreciate the pace of baseball.

25. Organize a stats-based contest that can draw in your friends and friends of friends, including those who are only casual fans – you know, the folks who throw five bucks into the office NCAA pool every March even though they don’t know whether Butler is in Indiana or Downton Abbey.

There are unlimited possibilities. Last year, I was part of a competition based on home runs – pick a couple of players who had 30-plus homers the year before, two who hit 20-30, etc. No one expects sophisticated research in a contest like this, and there’s no in-season managing. Once a month, the “commissioner” updated the husbands and wives and various friends who entered. The winner was someone who delivered a baby in the final weeks of the season.

26. Think about all the baseball information that’s at your fingertips year-round. Some of us mourn the print media’s decline in importance generally, but in the case of offseason baseball, it’s no contest between then and now. In days of yore, we’d keep checking the local drug store to see if Street & Smith’s baseball preview (written pre-Thanksgiving) had arrived. Newspaper sports sections in the winter covered baseball only if there was a trade or similar news. These days, there’s constantly something new about baseball on uncountable web sites and blogs.

27. As you watch the clock on a dull afternoon at work, create a silly team. Top of my head, all-avian: Birdie Tebbetts catching. George Crowe at first. Billy Martin, Robin Yount, Buck Weaver around the rest of the infield. Outfield and roster depth include Starling Marte, Turkey Stearnes, Chick Hafey, Goose Goslin, Barry Lark-in. Pitchers could be Mark (the Bird) Fidrych, Robin Roberts, Doug Bird, Art Fowler. Nestor Chylak umpiring. Frank Wren in the front office. Hawk Harrelson in the broadcast booth, if we must.

Try it with mammals. Or creatures of the sea.

28. Listen to Bob Newhart’s classic comedy routine on Abner Doubleday trying to sell the concept of baseball and explain the rules.

29. Hah! You think Newhart’s character had a hard time with the simple concept. Refresh yourself on the Rules of Baseball. That’ll take you far past spring training.

30. There’s a surprisingly large trove of baseball songs. Indulge your nostalgia with one you know, Willie, Mickey and the Duke. And give a listen to an equally charming one you probably don’t know, Baseball on the Block.

31. Pick up the 2016 Hardball Times Baseball Annual. Enjoy an article a day for a whole month. (Actually, there are 33 entries in the table of contents, but two of the items are by yours truly, and if you’ve gotten this far, you’ve read enough of me.)

See you in a month.

Resources and References

  • William Zinsser, Spring Training, Harper & Row, New York, 1988.
  • Yogi Berra, The Yogi Book, Workman, New York, 1996.
  • Kevin Nelson, Baseball’s Greatest Quotes, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1982.
  • The indispensable FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.


Joe Distelheim is a retired newspaper editor whose career included stints as sports editor of The Charlotte Observer and Detroit Free Press. He co-authored Cubs: From Tinker to Banks to Sandberg to Today.
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The Big Train
Guest
The Big Train

32. Fantasize about ways the Dodgers will disappoint me again this year.

Bad to the Zone
Guest
Bad to the Zone

Opening Day/Play Ball!

Ty Cobb
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Ty Cobb

Buster Posey inspires awe.

Jeb Bush would be caught stealing.

Marco Rubio would give the invocation (http://www.salon.com/2016/01/17/marco_rubios_real_disqualification_new_video_outlines_bizarre_religious_faith_and_he_wants_to_govern_by_it/)

Jackson price
Guest
Jackson price

Oh, I so worry about the Dodgers coming into Vin’s final year ( I could cry just thinking that). 3rd place finish in the west? …. Watching the playoffs on TV?

Nevin
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Nevin

Do they still play the blues in Chicago
when baseball season comes around?
When the snow melts away do the Cubbies still play
in their Ivy-covered burial ground?

When I was a boy they were my pride and joy
but now they only bring fatigue
to the land of the free, the home of the brave,
and the doormat of the National League

Matt
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Matt

Always one of my go-to baseball songs, love Steve Goodman.

Carl
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Carl

1) “Say Hey” by the Treniers

2) “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball”

3) “Hey Mickey”

hanna ny
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hanna ny

When people say ” you’ve got a Mike Trout in your outfield” when the real MIke Trout is in the outfield makes me crazy!

James Hickory
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James Hickory

Do you fellows publish baseball poems?