Baseball's Rite of Spring: Training Is Basic No More

A spring training game between the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers i i

The Los Angeles Dodgers take on the Chicago White Sox at the Dodgers' springtime home, The Ballpark at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Ariz., earlier this month. Chris McGrath/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Chris McGrath/Getty Images
A spring training game between the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers

The Los Angeles Dodgers take on the Chicago White Sox at the Dodgers' springtime home, The Ballpark at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Ariz., earlier this month.

Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Spring training isn't what it used to be. Baseball's annual warm-up is wrapping up a major consolidation. Next year, half of all teams will get ready for the season within 50 miles of each other around Phoenix. That change, and others, have some old-timers remembering how it used to be.

Spring Training 2010 at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Ariz., is almost as elaborate as the regular season. There is a 13,000-seat, sunken stadium with natural stone veneers and a fish-stocked lake separating the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox team facilities. Even the tickets approach regular-season prices.

From 'Fat Farms' To Marketing Tools

Billy DeLury is having a hard time getting used to the place. The skinny, bespectacled 76-year-old drives around in a golf cart. And he compares the luxury here with the former military barracks in Vero Beach, Fla., where the Dodgers slept in 1951, when he joined the team as a 17-year-old office boy.

"Three outs, four balls, three strikes, nine innings — that's all the same, but mostly everything else has changed," DeLury says.

In the early days, teams trained wherever it was warm and cheap — Havana; New Orleans; Catalina Island, Calif.; Waxahachie, Texas. They didn't care if other teams were nearby.

"Early spring training back in the 19th century was a fat farm," says Charles Fountain, author of Under the March Sun: The Story of Spring Training. "It was a way to get the players literally in shape."

In the early days, Fountain says, teams didn't actually play games against other teams until near the end of spring training. DeLury, who worked his way up to team travel manager, remembers how the Dodgers and the then-Boston Braves would get on a train and play each other in town after town while barnstorming north.

"We would stop at, say, Jacksonville, maybe Savannah, maybe Richmond, Washington, Baltimore," DeLury says. "Sometimes we'd lay over that night. Sometimes we wouldn't."

Fountain says gradually, owners started to see a bigger opportunity.

"Somewhere around the mid-1980s people suddenly discovered that, 'Hey, we're getting fans out to games here, and they're putting money in our coffers,' " he says.

Spring training became a marketing tool. Having a major league team gave towns in Arizona and Florida prestige. City leaders offered deals — often fancy new municipal stadiums. And every year or two, teams moved a little closer to one another. Now, 15 major league teams play in Central Florida, and 15 play in Arizona.

Same Objectives, Different Ballgame

The complex in Glendale has 12 practice diamonds, including exact replicas of Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles and U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago. DeLury marvels at the fancy facilities today's athletes have.

How Will Your Team Do?

A breakdown of which major league teams are up and which are down heading into opening day.

"Forty years ago, all there was was a whirlpool, and that was it," DeLury says. "A whirlpool and a bottle of alcohol and some liniment, and that was it. But you walk into a training room today it looks like some Mayo Clinic ... with all the machines they got in there."

It's probably no coincidence that upscale spring training facilities followed multimillion-dollar salaries for baseball players. Back in the 1940s, when former Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda played, guys came to camp out of shape because they couldn't afford to stay in shape.

"We had to work in the off-season," Lasorda says. "We had to go out and get a job because, you know, we weren't making money in those days."

Now, Dodger third baseman Casey Blake says you have to arrive ready to go. The fans expect it.

"You start playing games right away, so they expect you to be in pretty good shape," he says.

Blake lifts weights almost all year. He also does some things that were unheard of 40 years ago such as yoga and Pilates.

With big salaries and agents, there's also been a subtle power shift in spring training.

"When I played, the manager told you when it was your last at-bat," says Larry Bowa, a Dodgers coach and an all-star infielder during the 1970s. "Players now come up and say, 'That's it. I had enough today.' I ain't never seen that, but that's the way it is."

Still, the objective for a coach or manager in spring training is the same — to figure out which players you can count on, which you have to coddle and how to get them all playing as a team.

For fans, well, the lure is pretty much the same, too — a chance to get out of the cold and into the sun and a chance to experience big-league ball in an intimate setting.

Who cares if the pitchers aren't throwing a lot of strikes yet, or that the starters play only four innings. It's spring training. The sun is out, fans can see teams up close, and the season is just days away.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.