$pring Training

Here’s what comes to mind when I think about the arrival of spring: warmer, longer days; a return to outdoor activities; the greening of the landscape; wildflowers; the scent of citrus; and baseball. In fact, I see baseball as a metaphor for spring: the rebirth of another season when anything seems possible; the bestowal of a sense of normalcy; and a time when youth will be served in fact or in mind. Baseball fans find beauty in the vibrant green of the field; the architecture of the stadiums; the fundamental simplicity of the game (pitch, hit, run, and catch); and the complexity that lies beneath the surface.

Years ago when I attended my first spring training games in Arizona I was enthralled. I love the energy, anticipation, sights, sounds and smells. I enjoy the drama that plays out in every game: players rehabbing, trying to make the team or least make an impression. For them, every game is meaningful. And of course it is a lot of fun too. I remember an umpire handing a ball to a kid under one condition. He made the kid take an oath: “I promise to never, ever, yell at an umpire again”.

Today the innocence and purpose of spring training has changed. It’s as much about big business as it is about the game of baseball. The economic impact of spring training in Arizona is estimated at $544 million annually (I’ve seen estimates of up to $800 million). Over 60% of fans come from out of town. Spring training has become a 6 week event to promote tourism. In order to keep and lure fans, new stadiums costing upwards of $100 million have been built. Multi-million dollar renovations occur each year which fuel the facilities arms race.

Attendance for the most popular teams (Cubs, Diamondbacks and Giants) averages over 10,000 per game (14,800 for the Cubs) which makes it difficult to find tickets. (I don’t even bother trying to get tickets to see the SF Giants play at Scottsdale Stadium.) Parking is a hassle. The price of tickets has skyrocketed to the point that it’s almost as expensive as the regular season.

Stadiums are filled with fans from out of town more than willing to pay up to see their home town guys (although many are minor leaguers). Many don’t pay close attention to the game itself because they’re too busy soaking up the sun, drinking beer (a cheap version costs $6) and chatting with everyone around them. It is fun. It is entertaining. It does cost. And it must be worth it because attendance and revenue goes up every year.

I used to go to one or two games per week. Now I’ll go to just one or two in total. Maybe because it’s too difficult to get tickets or because I’m put off by the expense. Maybe I’ve become too nostalgic for a game and time that has passed. Or maybe because I want to avoid the inevitable let down that comes when the promises, dreams and hopes of spring give way to winter.

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