Earlier this month I joined pilgrims in their annual migration to small towns across Florida and Arizona for a ritual that’s almost as old as baseball itself: Spring training. Each March, refugees of the harsh, interminable American winters wend their way by bus, plane, and car to warmer pastures to celebrate an early spring. And what’s springtime without baseball?
Major league baseball teams have been using warm-weather sites for spring training for over a century now. Since the late 1800s, spring training camps have been set up everywhere from the southern United States to Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and even Cuba. As the national pastime has defined the eras, the spring exhibition games have changed along with the country.
During World War II, even as many minor league teams shut down and hundreds of professional players enlisted, both major league and spring training games went on. In the era of fuel and food rationing, baseball’s preseason also retrenched. Teams limited their travel and practiced closer to their home cities so that the rails could be devoted to the war effort. As baseball integrated after the war, Arizona became a destination for spring training as other parts of the country grappled with the remnants of Jim Crow.
Today, the 30 MLB teams assemble for spring ball in two aptly named leagues with one half of the teams playing in the Grapefruit League in Florida and the other in the Cactus League in Arizona. For baseball fanatics, vacationing families, locals, and spring breakers alike, the allure is simple. The spring training atmosphere is intimate, admission is cheap, and the seats are close to the action. As stars and prospects take the diamond together, spring training becomes the ultimate prelude of American professional sports.
The destination for my pilgrimage was Kissimmee, Fla., which hosts the Houston Astros spring training camp. Despite the fact that the team that has struggled mightily over the last few seasons, I was one in a group of thirteen who flew in from places as far-flung as Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, New Orleans, and Austin. In the middle of a seemingly endless winter, it was an easy sell.
Our first game was on the road against the Washington Nationals, who play just off the Atlantic coast in the town of Viera. We were seated next to another group of men in their late 20s and early 30s from places like Virginia, Maryland, Ohio, and Maine. In the row ahead of us sat a group of nine men, a batting order’s worth of wisdom, who were celebrating their 30th spring training trip together. As it happens at the games, we struck up easy conversation with them.
“Watch carefully boys,” said one Pittsburgh Pirates fan in his late-50s, neither cautioning nor boasting. “You guys are gonna look just like us before you know it.”
If spring training is about one thing, it’s the hierarchical line between youth and experience. Astros pitcher Brett Oberholtzer was 21 years old when he got his first big league invite to spring training with the Atlanta Braves in 2011. Suddenly, he was roaming a campus with future Hall of Famers Chipper Jones, Greg Maddux, and Tom Glavine, among the most celebrated names of baseball’s last generation.
“When I was 21, spring training was more of an eye-opening experience,” Oberholtzer told me. “It was more of a ‘Hey kid, this is how it’s done at the big league level.’ Now being 24 and trying to win a job, it’s not that way at all. It’s kind of like high school. You work your way up the ladder.”
As we watched Oberholtzer take the mound against the Nationals on a warm, windy afternoon, the southpaw was still battling to secure his place in the Astros pitching rotation. The Nats hitters jumped on him early, scoring six runs in the first inning. One mammoth home run by catcher Wilson Ramos went clear out of the stadium while another home run by 21-year-old outfielder Bryce Harper appeared to be going foul, but was carried into fair territory by an lucky gust of wind.
“That’s spring training,” Oberholtzer said of the inauspicious start. “My aim is to repeat what I do time and time again and I wasn’t able to do it that day, that specific day.”
Despite the setback, Oberholtzer returned the next inning and retired three straight batters to end his day. It was a recovery that earned him postgame plaudits from Astros manager Bo Porter. The team scored a few runs to make things interesting, but ultimately lost the game 8-5.
Since the basic mission of spring training is to evaluate talent, baseball teams schedule a number of “split squad games,” where the team is divided into two groups. Each squad plays a game against another team so more players have an opportunity to see action. For players young and old as well as those battling back from injuries and personal setbacks, these meaningless exhibition games could not be more consequential. The following day, our group went to an Astros split squad game at home against the New York Yankees.
Attending a home game at a satellite venue elicits a sense of friendly displacement. At our home game, we were overjoyed to find Blue Bell, a brand of ice cream that is native to a small Texas town outside of Houston and is only available in small pockets of the country. But even that couldn’t offset the strangeness of hearing the anthem “Deep in the Heart of Texas” at a stadium in central Florida.
We sat in a section surrounded by a number of Yankees fans that had trekked up from the team’s camp in Tampa. Though outnumbered, we weren’t alone. Astros fans had support from the bands of Boston Red Sox fans who had also come to the park to politely root against the rival Yankees.
Despite the intensity of the competition among players competing for roster spots, this brand of good-natured mischief also suffuses the clubhouse during spring training. Astros pitcher Chad Qualls related a story about his first major league spring training.
“My phone froze overnight,” Qualls told me. “I still don’t know what happened, but obviously my alarm clock didn’t go off and I was late to my very first big league camp. There were about 20 alarm clocks waiting at my locker after the workout.”
Qualls is in his second stint with the Astros. The journeyman pitcher, who was traded away in 2007 and has played for eight different teams since 2010, signed a two-year contract with the team in December. Now 35, Qualls had attended spring training in both the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues. Qualls sees little difference between the two venues, citing only slightly a longer travel schedule in Florida.
“As far as the schedule is laid out, it’s basically the same all around camp,” said Qualls. “Baseball’s been the same game for a long time. You just work on your fundamentals and get back in the swing of things.”
That afternoon, Qualls took the mound in a close 4-3 game and pitched an inning. He struck out two Yankees and allowed no hits. Still, the Astros fell to the Yankees 9-6. Our group returned home to rest; there was another game the next day.
With baseball’s regular season starting in earnest this week, the spring training satellite towns will return to their pre-baseball form. Some of them will host minor league affiliate teams while others will become non-baseball tourist destinations again. But unlike the rest of the weary country, next winter can’t come soon enough.