I am confident in saying that nobody can market meaningless games quite like Major League Baseball. Spring Training is one of the only times that you can see people lining up and waiting in front of their computers waiting for preseason tickets.
In what other sport do fans from all across the country and world descend upon two different sites to take in minor leaguers with numbers in the 90s, free agent experiments and – if I forgot to mention – games that DON’T COUNT.
I recently went on a vacation to Phoenix, Arizona to take in a few Brewers spring training games, and today I am going to run through all of the reasons that experience is so special and unique.
One of the things that becomes apparent as you arrive at the Phoenix airport is that a lot of people are here for baseball.
Like, A LOT.
One of the most exciting parts of going to the Cactus league is seeing other fans in and around the Phoenix area. Immediately when you walk off of your plane at the airport, you can’t help but notice the flood of people with their team pride on full display. You can’t walk around the PHX without seeing someone in a red Cubs hat, an orange Giants jersey, or some classic Dodger Blue.
For nearly the entire month of March different jerseys and hats, all from different teams and different eras, light up the streets of Phoenix. Some people are wearing their grandpa’s faded out Cubs hat, some are wearing their Corey Seager Rangers jersey that they bought four days prior, and plenty of kids in their brand new little jerseys, gloves in hand with the dream of a foul ball flying their way dancing in their heads.
It’s definitely a sight to behold.
Most are willing to strike up a conversation about their fanfare. Many of my fondest Spring Training memories across the four Cactus League vacations I have gone on in my life are those of meeting other fans from other parts of the country. Whether it’s the two Dodgers fans from Alabama who were kind enough to sell you their excess tickets when they were sold out (for only a slight markup) or the large group of White Sox concession vendors who have invaded the same hotel pool with their speakers and coolers for years, you’ll always be able to find a good story if you look hard enough (or, as previously mentioned, they invade your hotel pool).
One of the coolest experiences is when you see one of these hopeful fans in the same colors as you. You get to share your stories of being fans of the same teams. It’s very easy to get lost in one of these conversations. One moment you’re waiting for your table at breakfast, and all of a sudden you’re bonding over all of the heartbreak, triumph and dirty Manny Machado plays that you could possibly imagine. It begins to feel like the universal experience that so many baseball fans (such as myself) boast about when it comes to watching this game.
One thing that has always stood out for me about spring training is the increased level of intimacy that comes along with it. Of course, there are always rules – they obviously need to protect player safety – but they are much more relaxed in spring than they are in the regular season.
My first spring training experience came in March of 2012, when I was just a little kid who, in all honesty, didn’t really care about baseball that much (or at least one who didn’t drive himself nuts over it like the 17 year old version of him does daily). Although I do not remember this firsthand, the story that my dad loves to tell about this vacation was my that of my first ever game.
We were walking down the aisle to our seats in the then named Maryvale Baseball Complex as we turned around and saw newly signed veteran outfielder Nori Aoki.
We had no idea that you were even allowed to get that close to the players, let alone while you’re just walking to your seats.
Little did we know, that was nowhere near a unique experience.
Despite recent Covid-19 related restrictions, pre-game autograph sessions next to the dugout are commonplace, an on deck circle conversation or photo happens every few innings, and if you play your cards right, you can get to stand just feet away from a Cy Young winner warming up in the bullpen before games (especially if your team is on the road).
Finally, another one of the most enjoyable parts of spring training is the fact that the games don’t count. Many people see this as a negative aspect, as there aren’t really any stakes.
However, I see it the other way around.
I find the “meaningless” spring training games incredibly fun to watch because the stakes are so low.
Those who know me personally know that I probably could back off a bit when it comes to my emotional tie to a baseball team in a city that I don’t even live in.
I wrote a story last season about the brewers new base hit celebration (“claws up”), and within that I told the story of the Brewers blown eight run lead and near total meltdown all in just one inning vs. the Braves on May 16, 2021.
I can vividly remember telling my friend that went with to that game “I’m warning you: If the Brewers lose this game, I might start crying on the ride home”. Of course, that was a joke (although I could totally see myself doing that… It’s happened before), but part of that was the fact that the Brewers were on a massive skid and looked like they were going to get buried in the NL Central. That was one of the most stressful moments of the season as a Brewers Fan.
In spring, you can blow a fifteen run lead and it still won’t matter. Because the games don’t matter, team momentum doesn’t matter (as much) either. The whole point of going down to the Cactus League is to just sit back, relax and get out of the infamous 40°, rainy mud puddle that is Wisconsin in March for a week, not lose sleep over a blown lead.
In conclusion, I believe that Spring Training is not only the best thing that MLB does, it may just be the only thing that they do right. Spring Training is nothing but fun, and I absolutely recommend going there at least once. It is the only time in sports in which your team can lose by seven runs and it won’t matter! You’re in the 85° desert sun and all of your friends are stuck shoveling their driveways. The only thing that matters is the game, the weather and the friends you’ll make along the way.
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