Baseball’s First Threshold

New York Times
February 26, 2016
by Doug Glanville

The first day of spring training is often linked with the smell of fresh-cut grass. Cut grass means well-manicured baseball fields. Well-manicured baseball fields mean we are about to get serious.
Pitchers and catchers reported last week, and the rest of the players have been turning up, in keeping with the typical mid- to late-February start of camp. This time of year also marks the convergence of candidates for the big leagues. These players come from all over the world. Some are on a major league roster for the first time; some are in the United States for the first time; some are weathered veterans who know the routine of a training camp so well they could run it.
When you reach veteran status, you come to understand that reporting to camp is more than poetic analogies; it’s a responsibility and a full commitment, which could be summed up in one sentence: “There is no turning back.”
This is not necessarily a bad thing. You are entering the spring home of the major league team to which you seek season-long membership, and when the doors to that house admit you on that first day of spring training, you can definitively say you are on the team.
At least for now.
Forty-plus players, 25 slots. The math is not friendly.
Players recognize that earning one of those slots means you are among the best at your craft. A career in baseball is a marathon of endurance, but first you have to make the team. And to do that, you have to survive roster cut after roster cut.
With experience, a player develops a better sense of how to make it to opening day without the ax falling. You learn to accept that the first day of spring training is the only day you will feel 100 percent. I used to think of the season as battling inevitably worsening physical conditions where “a nick turns into a cut turns into a gash.” Even if you make the team, to stay there you have to be productive all season, knowing there is not much time to heal when you are playing 162 games with only a few days off. Physically, from Day 1, it is downhill.
So you stand at the door to the locker room and know this is it. This is where championships begin, careers end, hearts are both healed and broken.
As I aged in the game, camp changed for me. My first spring training, I could hardly contain myself: It was surreal hanging up my jersey next to the locker of the future Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg. It was as if I’d fallen into a pack of baseball cards from my childhood: Sandberg, Grace, Dunston, Sosa, Myers.
Then, slowly, I started to focus more on making the team, and less on sightseeing. Over the years, that desire grew to expectation, to demand, even to confidently figuring out where I should get my apartment once we broke camp. In time, I came to understand that this was hardly the typical trajectory, but part of the privilege of my first-round draft pick status.
Today, first-round picks are even more likely to expect to make the team. Economics have changed significantly: They make hefty sums, and a few enjoy major league guarantees, so many of these players are ready to produce sooner. Yet I can’t help being reminded of what the onetime Chicago Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said to me when I was in the minor leagues, one step from the big club. Hendry was concerned that young prospects thought advancement was automatic, that you put in your time and once the season was over, you went up to the next level. “This is not graduation,” he warned.
You must also wow and produce, on top of possessing other basic necessities like skill, good health and quite a bit of good luck (call it destiny if you dare).
In most cases, the teams have rights over you for four or five minor-league seasons (depending on your age when you signed) before they must place you on the major-league roster, a collectively bargained way for teams to maintain developmental control over their “investment” for some period of time. This is called “protecting a player,” and if the teams don’t exercise this right, they run the risk of losing that player.
I was the 12th pick in the first round in 1991, and my first spring training was in 1992. But it wasn’t major league spring training — people often forget that there is a minor league camp. In fact, a vast majority of players drafted do not even see a major league camp during their entire career.
The Cubs’ minor league spring training camp of course isn’t at Wrigley Field (imagine what snow would do to a grounder to short), and back in 1992 it wasn’t even in their current, luxurious Mesa, Ariz., complex, Sloan Park. It was in Mesa, but at Fitch Park, a place with no shade whatsoever. This was the first time I learned about breaking out into “heat bumps” and, in short order, about wearing zinc oxide. It was not pretty.
Our accommodations weren’t sexy in minor league camp. The minor league team hotel was the Maricopa Inn. As soon as I arrived, I cursed the video the Cubs had played me in my parents’ living room shortly after they drafted me, which conveniently skipped over the accommodations. I also remember how the welcome packet claimed the field was “four short blocks” from the hotel. I’m from the New York area, so for me four blocks meant about a four-minute walk, but Phoenix blocks are apparently a quarter mile each. Talk about false advertising. (Not to mention it was generally in the low 40s during the desert mornings, and in the mid-70s or warmer walking back at midday.)
My memories of the Maricopa Inn include broken-panel walls, an extremely loud and barely functioning air-conditioner, and a sleepwalking roommate (not great when all you have is about 76 square feet for the two of you).
The breakfast at the park was also not up to my French toast, bacon, eggs and grits standard, but a bowl of cereal and some watered-down orange juice. So I splurged on breakfast at the corner restaurant. Welcome to rude awakening 101.
The rudeness dissipates with focusing on the job at hand, which requires your climbing that slippery pyramid to make it to “the show.” The humility gained from taking on that challenge is a good trait for a player to learn. And today’s players have a new reality to navigate. Social media is an added pressure as opinions, from everyone and their dog, fly around like mosquitoes at a summer game in Birmingham. So before every spring game, and during downtime, players must check their phones and “update” to “control the message.” Must be exhausting.
Thankfully, major league spring training for me, did eventually come in 1994, and with it improved accommodations: the Mesa Mezona had more than the four phone lines the Maricopa Inn was offering. Today’s player laughs at such conditions, and looks at landlines as if they are fossils.
All the changes aside, 20 years later, spring training is still a rite of passage — as it has been for generations (some records cite the year 1870 for the first form of spring training). The idea that you must leave everything at the door when you check in. That this must be your all-in focus. This is your moment, and you have to be mature enough to embrace the irony that this is a kid’s game that must be treated like a serious profession.
So it all has begun: an eight-, hopefully nine-month trek from spring training to the World Series. But you still have to go through that first door, close it behind you, and never look back until the season is over.
Pack light.
Republished from The New York Times.



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