A Brief History of Spring Training: A Writer's Take
In this three-part series, Paul Dickson looks at the development, evolution, and history of spring training. In this final installment, Dickson reflects on his own experiences at spring training.
“People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball.
I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the
window and wait for spring.”
Spring training is many things to many people.
To many players it is essential—especially pitchers.
Sandy Koufax once put it: “People who write about spring training not being necessary have never tried to throw a baseball.”
To others it is more recreational than occupational. As another Hall of Famer, Brooks Robinson, stated, “This is my best time of the year. Heck, once the season starts, I go to work.” Ernie Banks, on the other hand, saw it as a time of rejuvenation: “Spring training means flowers, people coming outdoors, sunshine, optimism and baseball. Spring training is a time to think about being young again.”
To those who cover spring training it can represent something special that transcends the exhibitions being staged on the field. Ira Berkow noted that spring training “has been said to symbolize almost everything from hope, rebirth, eternal youth, and the American dream to the official start of the mating season . . . [while] affirming that the sophomore jinx is junk . . . [and] providing a stage for the veteran to show that there’s still a dance in the old guy yet.” [i]
Other writers—like Jerry Izenberg from the Newark Star-Ledger—were hardly impressed: “Watching a spring training game is as exciting as watching a tree form its annual ring.”
This writer has a different take on baseball’s spring.
In the late 1980s through the early 2000s, I spent a number of weeks attending spring training either in Florida or, once, in 2002, in Arizona. I was there as a reporter for Major League Baseball on assignment or as an independent writer gathering information for one of my baseball books, including various editions of the Dickson Baseball Dictionary (now in its third edition).
So, allow me to reminisce.
The fact is that the one time of the year it is easiest to get interviews with active players, former players, and executives is during the spring—that is, as long as you carry a tag around your neck that says “Press,” thereby gaining you access to the field, the clubhouse, and the press box. Such credentials can only be issued by Major League Baseball or by an individual team.
Over time I was able to interview all sorts of on-the-field personnel, including umpires and trainers. I interviewed men from eras as distant as the 1950s to rookies now in the game as elder statesmen.
In my spring training trips, I was only flat out turned down for an interview once (and in this instance, the interview was a few quick questions caught on the fly). I was at Legends Field in Tampa and attempted to ask the late Don Zimmer, then a Yankees bench coach for Joe Torre, a question and he shot back: “No time.”
I figured he was having a bad day and forgot all about it.
A year later I was walking across Legends Field when Zimmer came over to me and asked me if I was the guy he blew off last year. I said that I was. He apologized and offered me as much time as I wanted to answer questions.
Reggie Jackson enjoyed a 20-year career, which included 14 All-Star Games. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1993.
The interview I most recalled was with Reggie Jackson, who said, “I can give you exactly five minutes,” after I asked him for five minutes of his time. He grabbed two folding chairs, which he set up, and gave me exactly five minutes of high-quality interview time. The subject we talked about was signs and sign stealing, and Jackson came through with one of the best interviews I have ever conducted.
One of the oddest moments I ever had in Florida was with the Orioles. I was talking to several coaches about an hour before the game began. When we finished our conversation I was walking toward the dugout when a young woman standing in the first row of the grandstand asked me to come over and do her a favor. She told me that she had just gotten married and that her wedding dress was a floor-length Cal Ripken Jr. jersey, which she had had cradled in her arms. She asked me if I could go over and get Ripken to sign the wedding dress. I explained to her as patiently as I could that reporters were forbidden from soliciting autographs and I did not want to lose my press accreditation. She frowned and I moved on to Plan B, which was to go over and get Ripken and get him to sign it himself. I told him the story. He laughed and then ambled over to the bride, signed the jersey, and with a smile on his face let the young woman know that it was the ugliest wedding dress he had ever seen.
Civility was the order of the day, and each day I worked there seemed to be a special moment. One day during my first spring training visit I approached Tug McGraw to discuss baseball slang and terminology. McGraw was known for his ability to name pitches (a Linda Ronstadt fastball, for example, was one that blew by you—i.e. “Blue Bayou”). We actually sat for a quick lunch in the press room and covered a lot of ground, which was invaluable for my dictionary. Finally I asked about the nickname “Tug.” He smiled, winked, and said, “Well, my mother gave it to me while I was nursing.”
Another moment I will never forget occurred after an exhibition game in Winter Haven when I approached Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd, who was walking back to the clubhouse from the baseball field, which were separated by several hundred yards. I asked him a quick question as we walked. He stopped and quickly pointed to the curb. We both sat there as he answered my questions. The odd thing about the situation was that people—ballplayers, fans, and others inside the complex—swirled around us trying to figure out why Boyd was on the ground. Several people ask if they could help him get up, assuming that he had fallen. Boyd thought this was hysterical.
The oddest moment came in March 1989 when I was in Winter Haven at a Red Sox vs. Astros exhibition game. I got a message to report to the Red Sox broadcast booth, where I had done an interview on my dictionary. Seems that broadcaster Joe Castiglione needed a color man to help him finish the game, since his regular partner had departed suddenly with a debilitating toothache. In an instant I was fulfilling an adult fantasy, which was to be calling a game on the radio. I worked for a good four innings, and friends in the Boston area who heard the game said I did a pretty good job.
Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd was a pitcher for nine years in the Major Leagues.
Courtesy: The Trading Card Database
[i] New York Times, February 20, 1983.
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