Football has an iron grip on the nation’s TV remotes these days.
College has used its seemingly endless supply of bowls. The NFL wraps up with the Super Bowl today.
The basketball and hockey seasons are hitting their stride. The Winter Olympics are almost here.
But for me and a select cadre of fans, the date to circle is Wednesday.
“Pitchers and catchers report.”
Four words that spring training has started. Baseball is back.
Rogers Hornsby, the Hall of Fame second baseman, said it best long ago:
“People ask me what I do in the winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.”
Spring training is a little more than a week away because of the game’s own version of “March Madness.”
The Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks will start the regular season with two late March games on a 165-year-old cricket oval in Australia.
To get ready, the Diamondbacks have told their pitchers and catchers to show up for spring training Wednesday. That’s a week earlier than usual.
It will be a mournful day for some Los Angeles Angels fans. Traditionally, newly traded players, no matter their position, report early to get to know their teammates.
So Wednesday, Angels fans might see Mark Trumbo in the Sedona red, Sonoran sand and black colors of his new team, the “D’backs.” He’ll hammer batting practice baseballs over the outfield walls of Salt River Field at Talking Stick, near Scottsdale.
Next up: The Dodgers. They report Saturday to Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Calif. They, too, have to practice for a few weeks before that 12-hour flight to Sydney. My bet is nobody on the team flies coach class.
Then comes the avalanche of teams. The Angels arrive at Tempe Diablo Stadium on Feb. 13. Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs, the two arms received for Trumbo, will be there. So will mystery man Mark Mulder, the two-time All-Star who hasn’t pitched in the major leagues since 2008. He’s hoping to restart his career with the Angels.
The Angels hope to better their 9-18-4 spring training record from last year (yes, ties are allowed in spring training). In a harbinger of a disappointing year, the Angels were the only one of the 30 major league clubs who didn’t win at least 10 spring games.
For the first week or so, spring training is a glorified game of catch with a little batting practice on the side. Then it moves into the first full workouts. It’s my favorite time of spring training, before the games and crowds and tour groups arrive. It’s when I first saw then-rookie Yasiel Puig of the Dodgers uncork a throw from the warning track to home plate. It’s where I saw rookie Mike Trout go from first to third in a flash during drills.
Last year, I watched Sandy Koufax, still fit in his “32” Dodger uniform, show newly acquired lefthander Hyun-Jin Ryu a new grip for his curveball. It’s also when Jered Weaver threw out his first expletive of the season after a fastball sailed against the backstop.
This year, games begin Feb. 26 and the Valley of the Sun turns into a baseball theme park. The Cactus League has 15 teams that will play 221 games in 11 ballparks, most less than an hour apart by car.
The other 15 teams play in Florida’s Grapefruit League. Once a sleepy time of year in ramshackle parks, spring training is big tourism business. Each league attracted more than 1.5 million fans last spring.
Hoping to lure new teams or keep old ones, cities throw millions at teams. Cubs Park opens this spring, part of the $84 million Wrigleyville West complex built for the Chicago Cubs. The team with the oldest park in the National League – Wrigley Field in Chicago is celebrating its 100th birthday this year – has the newest spring training grounds in the country.
The big buzz in Arizona this year is around the Chicago Cubs. At home, they are marking 100 years at Wrigley Field. But in Arizona, they will move into a new home, Cubs Park. It’s the heart of Wrigleyville West. The park looks great, but the planned shopping and entertainment district around it is still on paper, giving the location a barren look.
The Oakland A’s will work out one last spring at venerable Phoenix Municipal Stadium before moving next year to the Cubs’ old facility at HoHoKam Park in Mesa. Municipal Stadium, with its outfield light standards transplanted from the old Polo Grounds in New York, does not have a new tenant lined up as yet.
The San Francisco Giants, who once played at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, will open up another spring training at one of the most popular ballparks, Scottsdale Stadium. It’s within easy walking distance of Old Town Scottsdale, with its many bars and restaurants, including the famous baseball-themed Don & Charlie’s. The Pink Pony steakhouse, the oldest restaurant in Scottsdale, closed in 2009 but had a much heralded revival in 2011. Unfortunately, it didn’t last and the Pink Pony is closed last summer.
Change happens, even in the slow spring training atmosphere of Arizona. It’s also a good year to see the Milwaukee Brewers play in Maryvale at the smallest park in the league. The team is considering a move to the Grapefruit League and only needs to give a year’s notice to make the move.
After years of letting teams go to Arizona, the Grapefruit League has become aggressive. JetBlue Park at Fenway South in Fort Myers opened two years ago as the new spring training home of the Boston Red Sox. It cost $78 million, showing Florida will play financial hardball with Arizona.
While 28 teams play spring training games, the Dodgers and Diamondbacks will open the regular season March 22 at the Sydney Cricket Ground. The venue dates to 1848, just three years after the first organized baseball game in Hoboken, N.J. They’ll play a second game the next day before flying home (Note to Dodgers: The eastbound flight is the killer in terms of jet lag).
In another odd twist, both the Dodgers and Diamondbacks will play preseason games after they return from the regular season opener, including the Dodgers three-game “Freeway Series” against the Angels.
Finally, on March 31, the Seattle Mariners arrive at the Big A. Most of the rest of baseball also plays that day. Practice is over. It all counts from here on in.
For more information:
• Cactus League: cactusleague.com
• Grapefruit League: floridagrapefruitleague.com