In the days before free agency, we had a pretty good idea of what a team's roster would look like from year to year. Now, with players hopping from one team to another, it's a lot more complicated.
This is the time of year when I come down with a case of baseball fever. It's happened every year since I was a kid. It's really not the same thing as spring fever because I live in a part of the country where we don't have spring. We have winter (or at least we did until this year); then, we have mud season when everything thaws out. Then, all of a sudden, summer sneaks in. Maybe spring will pop up its head on some random Tuesday, but other than that New England is fly-over country for that season. The progression of seasons in this part of the world is best described in the verse to the song, "June Is Bustin' Out All Over," lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, Jr.
March went out like a lion
A whippin' up the water in the bay
Then April cried and stepped aside
And along came pretty little May
May was full of promises
But she couldn't keep em quickly enough for some
And a bunch of doubtin' Thomases
Was predictin' that the summer'd never come
But it's comin' by gum
We can feel it come
You can feel it in your heart
You can see it in the ground
You can see it in the trees
You can smell it in the breeze
Look around! Look around! Look around!
Of course, by then, the baseball season is two months old and we are well on our way to where ever it is that the season's journey will take us. But it all starts at this time of year, during spring training, and it always has.
The teams are far away, preparing themselves in summer-like weather for the long grind of the season that lies ahead, but the fact that we know they're playing games is enough to get the fever started. It's different than it used to be, but so is everything else. It used to be that players used spring training to get themselves in shape to play. Most of them in the old days held off-season jobs to make ends meet. Today's minimum salaries of more that half a million bucks a year have eliminated the need for such part-time work (minor league pay grades are another story). Everyone shows up having worked out in the off-season, although re-honing of baseball skills is still necessary. Long gone are the days when players from, say, the west coast would carpool across the country to attend spring training.
In the days before free agency, we had a pretty good idea of what a team's roster would look like from year to year. Now, with players hopping from one team to another, it's a lot more complicated. Some franchises don't have the financial wherewithal to keep really good players; others, like the Red Sox, can afford the superstars but balk at paying draconian taxes when they exceed the luxury payroll caps for too many years in succession. Thus, it becomes a necessity for even the wealthiest of teams to budget their resources. We didn't sign up for living within budgets when we first pledged our troth to the game all those years ago. We just wanted our team to get the best players, then to keep them, and to win with them. It's a lot more complicated now.
Now we have to factor in things like free agency, and number of innings pitched by what pitchers, and who might need Tommy John surgery, and what team might be using what electronic means to steal signs, when we evaluate ballclubs.
But there is still this about baseball: it's still three strikes and you're out, three outs to an inning, and 90 feet between the bases. At its core, baseball is still the same game that it's always been, and that's why we still love it.
As long as no one tries to change the nature of the game, they can make all the changes they want. If the powers-that-be decide to implement calling balls and strikes electronically, that's all right by me. But if they start extra innings by automatically putting a runner on second, (something they're already doing in the minors) that changes the very nature of what baseball is all about. I would sooner that they call an extra inning game a tie after, say, 12 innings and award both teams a half game in the standings.
Perhaps they could institute something like the National Hockey League's shoot-out system and have home-run hitting contest to decide extra inning games. I could live with that before I'd buy a game won by a runner starting on second base, advancing to third on a ground out and then scoring the winning run on a sacrifice fly.
But enough of complaining about what might be wrong about baseball. Let's talk about what's right. And that is that they are actually playing games in Florida and Arizona this month. There are a thousand dramas already playing out. What young player will make the big league roster for the first time and maybe even become an impact player? What wizened old veteran will manage to eke out one more year in the majors? For every one of those feel-good story lines there will be a corresponding heartbreaking one -- of a kid going down with an injury at just the wrong time, of a veteran being told that it's all over for him. One is haunted by Jerry Remy's story of the day he realized that his knee was to far gone for him to continue playing, and leaving the spring training facility in tears, knowing that the game he loved and the only profession he'd ever known had been taken from him. In his case, of course, he had the talent and the good fortune to find another way of staying around the game, but there are thousands for whom that was the end as far as baseball was concerned.
The wheel keeps turning and soon another baseball season will begin. There will be some new players on the scene and others will fade away. That's the way it has always been and that's the way it will be next year and the year after that and, hopefully, for years and years to come.
- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.