The Sweet Unreality of Spring Training

In an effort to take a break from the lingering winter and the dismal news coming out of the NFL-NFLPA negotiations, my wife and I took our first annual Spring Training trip. Just in case you have never taken in the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues, let me highly recommend them. Everyone just seems to be in a good mood. That is likely because it is still snowing in their home towns. The stadiums -- at least the ones we visited -- were beautiful. There is something about the palm trees behind the centerfield wall that speaks to the way the game should be enjoyed.

The games don't count, of course, except for those talented athletes looking to make a club for opening day or find a place on a AAA or AA team where they can be called up mid-season when the inevitable injuries happen to the first nine. It seemed that the Red Sox, my local franchise, called up everyone from Pawtucket and Portland during the course of last year's march to the emergency room. At one point in the season, more than a majority of the players on the field had not started the season with the big club. All of them, however, had played in Fort Myers in March.

Even the predictably dreadful Pittsburgh Pirates seem energized this spring. They played the Phillies last Friday. The Phils had brought along enough red-clad fans to out-cheer the hometown Bradenton faithful. The Phillies are likely to end up playing almost until November. The Pirates will finish the season on September 28 playing the Brewers in Milwaukee. On this delightfully sunny day, however, the Pirates and Phillies were tied for first place! Neither had lost a game that counted. In fact, every club in Florida and Arizona was tied for first place! This is certainly a social worker's dream. Competition with no losers... at least yet.

It is true that the collective bargaining agreement between Major League Baseball and the Players Association will expire after the end of this coming season, but unlike football and especially basketball, no one foresees labor strife in the future of the National Pastime. I am still dazzled by how the leadership of the owners and players transformed their truly dysfunctional labor relationship into a positive partnership. That does not mean that the parties sing "kumbaya" around the campfire and go home. They have issues to iron-out, but they will do so as experienced professionals without risking a labor stoppage. Mike Weiner, the new chief honcho at the Players Association, and Rob Manfred, who heads up the labor relations operation at MLB, have now negotiated two agreements in a row without what had earlier been the inevitable result -- labor strife and a hiatus in the sports entertainment that gets us through the summer. They have already begun preliminary work on this year's negotiations.

And so, spring training just continues on in its own quirky way. Last Monday, the Yankees and the Orioles played to a nine inning scoreless tie. That seemed sufficient for a day's work, and no one in the crowd complained when the game was called. By the ninth inning, of course, all the regulars had been replaced by the "future stars," the players we may or may not see again. The stands are filled with scouts from other teams looking over the talent and thinking about trades that could make their clubs stronger.

Spring training is big business for the towns and cities of Florida and Arizona. They have provided terrific new stadiums and compete with one another to keep (or steal) a club they can call their own, at least until the trucks pull out by the end of the month and head back to reality. Up north (or south in the case of the Florida Marlins) the games count. Only 25 players can wear the club's uniform and no one has a number in the eighties or nineties on their back. Unlike spring training, no games are called after nine or ten innings just because everyone has had a good enough workout.