It's as if life itself is regenerating after the long, cold winter -- a concept that has launched a thousand overwrought paeans to exhibition baseball.
PEORIA, Ariz. — Just the very words — spring training — conjure up an image.
Verdant fields. Delectable warmth. Lazy afternoons in the sun watching the slow unveiling of a new baseball season.
It’s as if life itself is regenerating after the long, cold winter — a concept that has launched a thousand overwrought paeans to exhibition baseball. The legendary baseball impresario Bill Veeck once said that the true harbinger of spring was “not crocuses or swallows returning to Capistrano, but the sound of a bat on a ball.”
It’s a romantic notion that’s forever seductive in its simplicity, remaining every bit as powerful with each passing season. And as one who is immersed in his 28th spring covering baseball, I’m here to tell you that it all rings true. Pass the sunscreen and fire up the poetry.
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But I’m also here to tell you that behind the lyrical odes to the very real appeal of baseball in its most relaxed and intimate form, there are scores of people working very hard, in relative obscurity but with unwavering enthusiasm, to make it happen.
I’m not talking about the million-dollar athletes who are, ultimately, the impetus for it all. They may have a sincere appreciation for the joys of spring training (Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby, asked once what he did all winter, famously replied, “I stare out the window and wait for spring”), and a vague realization that it doesn’t just happen by accident.
But I suspect they are largely oblivious to the machinations, planning, organization and sweat that goes into pulling off seven weeks of baseball.
I’m talking about Jeff Bopp, who sits at a picnic table outside the Mariners clubhouse for hours each day, cleaning the dirt off players’ spikes. Armed with a wire brush, scrubbing bubbles and a bucket of water, he and an intern attack shoe after shoe until the dusty detritus of a morning workout are history. And loves it.
“I wouldn’t change this job for anything the other guys are doing,” he said. “I get to be outside. I don’t have to run all over the place. I stand here and do the shoes.”
I’m talking about Pete Fortune and Bill Sepich, long-time Mariners clubhouse attendants, who among other duties make sure that up to 30 loads of laundry get done each day, then are folded and distributed. The key to getting out the most stubborn stains, if you must know, is something called Formula 50 by Zep. In another world, it’s used as an engine degreaser, so some errant pine tar doesn’t stand a chance.
Fortune has been doing this for more than 20 years, long enough to remember when the Mariners trained in Tempe. That was before spring training became big business with fancy new stadiums and even, in some cases, luxury suites.
“We’ve come a long way,” he mused. “I used to sleep in the clubhouse at Tempe Diablo Stadium. I slept in a little room, with scorpions and stuff crawling around.
“Back then, the washers and dryers were in the visiting clubhouse. We used to wheel the laundry across the field between innings. Right in the middle of games, here comes a load of towels across the field.”
Ted Walsh, the Mariners’ equipment manager, masterminds the necessary minutiae of making things run smoothly, from packing the truck in Seattle (“The thing I compare it to people, it’s like moving a big house, with a lot of people in the house,” he said) to ordering the 12,000 baseballs that will be used in spring. And always with one eye toward the impending season, which will require the big house to be moved again.
“We’re already in pack-up mode,” he said, smiling. “You’re here for a week, and you’re like, ‘OK, let’s pack it up.’ “
Walsh arrives at the park each morning at 5:15 a.m., and when games start won’t leave until 7. Often, pitcher Stephen Pryor is already there when he arrives, having fallen into the habit of working out in the dawn.
“I get up between 4:30 and 5,” Pryor said. “I have two kids, so I’m used to it.”
Manager Eric Wedge is usually not far behind, working on the day’s game plan for the Mariners’ major-league camp. Each workout early in camp involves fundamental drills that are the foundation for the coming season, from pickoffs to rundowns to bunt defense to relays, and beyond.
To me, this is as much the essence of spring training as anything — major-league players relentlessly working on the mundane skills that haven’t changed, really, since Little League. It’s played out every February in Arizona and Florida, mind-numbingly repetitious yet completely indispensable.
“It’s about playing clean baseball, and fundamentally is when that shows up,” Wedge said.
Nearly every morning at 8 a.m., Mariners pitchers file out for a conditioning workout under the auspices of James Clifford, their performance specialist. While the endeavor is serious and important — giving them the fitness base necessary for an arduous season — the pitchers also try to make it fun. That can include friendly competition and good-natured needling as Clifford runs them through their paces; the pack often can be seen returning to the clubhouse physically drained but with smiles on their faces.
“It’s one thing about this game; we’re together so much, you get to know each other so well,” said Clifford, a linebacker on the Huskies’ 1991 national-championship football team.
On game days, a whole different dynamic, just as intricate, whirs into action at the Peoria Sports Complex. For Friday’s opener, months of planning comes to fruition as the vendors, groundskeepers, security, ticket takers and everyone else take their stations.
What makes it all work are the “Red Shirts” of the Peoria Diamond Club. More than 400 strong, mostly retired folks, these volunteers are deployed throughout the stadium in a variety of roles, all in the name of charity. The group has raised more than $1 million in the 20 years the Mariners have trained in Peoria.
Many of the volunteers are “Snow Birds” from the Seattle area (Rain Birds?), including Mike Colacarro of Kent, who spent 21 years working athletic events at the University of Washington. He bought a place in Arizona, and migrates south every November.
“I go home in May or June,” he said. “When it hits 100 (degrees) three days in a row, I pack up and go home.”
Colacarro likes looking at the name tags of his fellow ballpark volunteers and seeing hometowns from all over the United States and even Canada.
“It’s an eclectic group, and everyone has a story,” he said.
Like Gloria Zalewski, originally from Syracuse, who became a Red Shirt at the behest of her late husband Frank, a baseball fanatic.
“He’s still with me,” she says, displaying Frank’s name tag that she has clipped to her own and wears around her neck. “Frank didn’t like baseball; he loved it.”
And that is the essence of spring training, whether manifested on the field or in the periphery — a deep, abiding love for the game.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @StoneLarry