We hardly have to channel George Carlin to parse the astonishingly modest ambitions of baseball's seasonal pre-amble, at least compared with other sports. Spring training: We're trying here, don't be too hard on us. The NFL's exhibition season: We'll show you! Nobody's ever pretended it was otherwise, not even baseball itself, which practically gives away the games (relatively speaking), counting on the continued presence of retirees winding out the clock in the sunbaked bleachers for a fan base. Expectations are well-managed, let's put it that way. --Richard Hoffer, SI, "The Rites (and Wrongs) of Spring
Look no further than second base for the Red Sox, and the tweaked abdominal that retired the reigning AL MVP from this year's World Baseball Classic, for why the game, of course, needs spring training. The WBC induced a fiery competitive spirit among some of the game's top performers months before their bodies were conditioned to a fine level. Injuries followed as a result. Even with modern nutrition and workout regimes, the kind of endurance needed to make it through the regular season calls for a long ramp-up to prime time.
There's also the need to evaluate certain prospects under slightly brighter lights than they're used to. There's joy in introductions to the likes of Daniel Bard, or the glove of Angel Chavez. A certain charm to a Saturday afternoon on the couch with a balmy Florida afternoon playing out lazily on the TV screen, watching these pleasant, unfamiliar faces explore the existential meaninglessness of it all.
Even so, after a while Spring Training baseball is kind of like non-alcoholic beer. In many ways, it is the same as the real thing, but in some of the most important ways, it's not. (Also, it tends to be served only at 1 o'clock in the afternoon.)
Take the Yankees game Tuesday. After 7 innings, the score remained a taut 1-1. Tim Wakefield had, to quote Surviving Grady's brilliant Headwarmer Dialogues, "made Teixeira look like he was wearing fifty-pound brass tits." AJ Burnett, meanwhile, embodied Sox' fans worst fears, and both teams had only squeezed across a run apiece on singles by the seventh-inning stretch. It was March, but it was beginning to carry a faint whiff of August or September.
But then the eighth inning rolled around. Manny Delcarmen came on for the Sox in relief of Ramon Ramirez. Already we were seeing the 'B' or possibly 'C' bullpen rotation for this situation. I understand why that's important, but after seeing how the inning worked out, here's hoping we'll never actually meet that particular what-if.
Brad Wilkerson, not Kevin Youkilis, was playing first base, and on an infield tapper after a walk to open the inning, Wilkerson either backed up into Delcarmen or Delcarmen ran into him, but the next thing I knew, everyone was safe, there were Sox sprawled all over the ground and a ball rolling loose and it was very, very much not August-like.
Had this been a real emergency, we could have expected a certain set of strategic decisions, followed, probably, by Herculean tete a tetes between plate and pitchers' mound, accompanied by much deliberation and brow-furrowing and time-calling and stepping off the rubber, all floating in a savory soup of electric tension in one of the teams' sold-out ballparks.
It's not to say that in such a situation, the Yankees still might not have fired up the merry-go-round in that inning and thoroughly extinguished the barn-burner for a final score of 7-1. After all, Hideki Matsui was on deck for the Yankees as Devern Hansack faced down his first batter (Because Matsui is always up. Especially when it's the last place you want to see him up. This is a proven fact).
But I'd like to think that Hansack, serviceable as he's been as a quadruple-A guy for the Red Sox, would not have been the call if this game had meant anything. Austin Jackson is supposed to be good (and his towering homer off Hansack to put the game way a few moments later backed that argument), but the at-bat was hardly an apocalyptic showdown. Even as the grand slam sailed into the night, a mostly-empty City of Palms Park moaned only quietly.
Suds and hops and a golden-brown color. But it just doesn't give you that buzz.
Saturday's game against the Twins was a little bit better; all the players seemed to be pouring it on a little more, now that the WBC is over and the season is getting closer. Jerry Remy predicted they would turn it on for this weekend and then retreat into that lower spring-training gear until Opening Day.
When the Sox laid it on a little, they won handily. There are still plenty of 'projects' on this team, including Brad Penny, a rather pedestrian pitcher, delivery-wise, whose sheer size is his chief distinguishing feature so far. On Saturday, Penny gave up two runs early, but settled. Between what he and some of his teammates showed that day, it was easy to picture just how good things could turn out to be this season.
Francisco Liriano had started off sharp for Minnesota, but then gave away outs to the Sox in the bottom of the third by walking Lowrie and plunking Kottaras. Then the new No. 5, Rocco Baldelli, announced his upside by homering to center and putting the Sox up 3-2. After that, they never looked back, handing the Twins a satisfying 9-4 drubbing that sunny afternoon, despite the fact that George Kottaras couldn't seem to locate a pop-up to save his life, poor thing.
There was just a little hint there, as I watched all the new Sox mill around with the tried and true in the dugout, of the enormous potential, the excitement waiting just around the corner. Meanwhile, Remy's prediction was that after this weekend, things will return to their previous sleepy state until the curtain officially goes up on 2009.
I'll be over here, waiting for a taste of the real stuff.