Spring Training’s Paradox: Languid, Yet Pressured
If one word comes to mind about spring training, it is “languid.”
Fans amble around the perimeters of practice fields, breezily discussing the players before them, all while soaking in sun rays. It’s a wonderful experience, if you’ve not previously attended, and the Twins’ recent improvements, in partnership with Lee County, Florida, have only enhanced the atmosphere at Minnesota’s camp.
Having attended games at multiple spring training venues in both Florida and Arizona, I’ll attest that the atmospheres surrounding the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues remain similar–save, perhaps, for the differences in humidity and travel times between ballparks.
Among these similarities stands the fact that spring training baseball fans care for the game and their teams. After all, many of them travel south to their teams’ respective training sites, leaving behind cold winters for days spent watching exhibition games, playing golf, visiting local beaches, and dining. People who don’t care for baseball aren’t apt to spend hundreds of dollars on such trips; even local retirees often have loyalties to the participating clubs.
While we fans work on our tans and pleasantly debate the upcoming year’s roster moves, another scene plays out before our eyes. It is one about which we read each day, often concerning the latest prospects, but that many fans don’t recognize while eyeing the sun-soaked fields.
Job security, as we know in this age, is not always guaranteed. This is particularly so for many of the men trying to win a roster spot in spring training.
Amid the stretching, warm-up tosses, and pitchers’ fielding practice sessions, an underlying pressure shadows many players’ daily performances. Butcher a ground ball here or swing a bit too wildly in the cage? You may be knocked down a peg in relation to others competing for that final big-league roster spot or the preferred role on a minor-league club. Heaven knows that many a young Twins prospect felt Tom Kelly’s wrath in such situations through the years. Kelly still instructs players each spring in Fort Myers and his famous “Good Morning, America” routine remains a part of Twins camp.
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A group stands out in the quest to land a spot with the big club. Veteran ballplayers and others may be called to camp as non-roster invitees. They audition for a spot in the bullpen or on the bench, having chosen a particular club for the opportunity they, and their agents, saw in the 25- or 40-man rosters.
Former major leaguer CJ Nitkowski recently wrote a fascinating piece about the process of choosing a club and spoke of it in his role as a host on MLB Network Radio. He, like several others in the latter stages of their careers, gambled—and sometimes lost—on one of these spring training invitations.
This year’s Twins camp features its own crop of non-roster invitees, most of whom are younger players who have yet to reach Target Field. Though none of the players are 15-year MLB veterans, pitcher Mark Hamburger has possibly the most intriguing tale as he battles for a roster spot.
Just as veteran players push to earn one more season in the bigs, younger players strive to break camp heading north to Minnesota or their respective major league clubs. Players such as Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, and Jose Berrios have tantalized Twins fans and baseball observers with their talents and figure to land in Manager Paul Molitor’s lineup in forthcoming seasons. For now, however, participating in the big league camp is a way to learn from other Twins as well as the Minnesota coaching staff before refining their talents in Rochester, Chattanooga, or elsewhere in the system.
(As an aside, a fascinating look at the challenges young Latin ballplayers face is found in a 2000 book by Marcos Breton and Jose Luis Villegas entitled Away Games. Together, they chronicle the life of Dominican hopeful Miguel Tejada as the teenager comes of age and tries to catch on with an MLB club’s training academy, then deals with the transition to baseball—and life alone—in America.)
The next time you stroll the walkway at Hammond Stadium, another MLB training site, or simply tune in for a spring training broadcast, spare a thought for the players battling for their careers. Their quest to remain in the profession is something many of us never face, and the prospect of being cut all too immediate as rosters are pruned.
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