Editor’s note: Larry Stone’s story was reported and written from the early days of this year’s spring training in Arizona. It was sent to press for publication in Pacific NW magazine before Major League Baseball made the decision to cancel the rest of spring training, and delay the start of the regular season in an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. In this time of uncertainty, we offer it in its original form, anticipating the joys that we hope await next spring.
PEORIA, Arizona — Spring training, Ernie Banks once said, is a time to think about being young again — and I suppose that’s as good a place to start as any.
The fabled Mr. Cub was certainly on to something in pinpointing the perennial, almost cultlike appeal of watching baseball in its most rudimentary and, in literal terms, insignificant form. The games don’t count; the players aren’t yet in peak form; and the fields are flooded with earnest, hopeful young men who — spoiler alert — will never sniff the major leagues.
Yet I’m here to tell you, in the midst of my 35th consecutive spring training in Arizona (not to mention another 15 or so in Florida, where the other half of major league teams train), that it is an exhilarating, life-affirming and rejuvenating experience.
Yeah, I said 35 years — 25 of them covering the Mariners, bookended around a 10-year stint as a Bay Area reporter focusing on the Giants and A’s. Do the math, and you will come to an inevitable conclusion: I’m getting up there. And I have the graying, thinning hair to prove it. But you’d best believe that every single time I walk off the plane at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport, and feel the glorious sun on my shoulders, the years begin to slip away.
Ernie nailed it — here in the desert, I start to think about being young the moment I get to the ball field. Especially one of the back fields at the sprawling Mariners complex, where eager minor-leaguers field fungoes from a grizzled coach straight out of central casting. This guy — the names change over the years, but not the demeanor — has hit thousands of pop flies, but is still an artist of da Vinci stature with the bat, and still peppers the diamond with a nonstop barrage of colorful encouragement.
I might be growing old, and the coaches, too, but the players stay eternally youthful. They are always brimming with promise and overflowing with dreams at this time of year, and so you can be, too. You can take your sign-stealing scandals, your complaints about the pace of play, your growing sense that baseball just isn’t what it used to be — a lament as old as time, but that’s another story — and stow them away temporarily.
Instead, put on the sunblock, don your cap and find a seat in the bleachers for early workouts. That’s where superstars, future stars and never stars work in close-enough proximity to the fans that they just might stop and have a chat before trotting off to the next work station. I’ve seen no less an eminence than Ken Griffey Jr. bantering with senior citizens on lawn chairs, Edgar Martinez stopping and signing an autograph, Mike Cameron high-fiving a group of delighted youngsters.
In Arizona in February and March, the game is still magnificent, in all its elemental glory, and despite all the flaws that will re-emerge in due time once you get home. You’ve doubtless heard all the clichéd poetry of spring training, the freshly mowed grass and the crack of the bat; yes, you get savory, mouth-sized gulps of all of that. But the true bliss is found in the mundane, the familiar — the easy grace of big-leaguers playing catch. The astonishing ballet-like fluidity of infield practice. The languid moments in a far-flung workout watching rundown drills and pitchers covering first base. You can rest assured that Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson did the exact same thing 100 years ago; Willie Mays and Bob Gibson did it 50 years ago; and Kyle Seager and Marco Gonzales are doing it today, at the Peoria Sports Complex. As are ballplayers all around the Cactus League, and, 2,000 miles away in Florida, all around the Grapefruit League as well. The immutable music of the game.
It’s a welcome reassurance that this slice of life’s joy is inalterable, because you know that some of the 8-year-olds running around the complex with a glove and a gleam in their eye today will be doing it in 20 years.
And guess what? Every one of those teams is still undefeated, with a scenario to conjure that could get them to the World Series, if things break just so. Hope springs eternal in the spring, and does so eternally. When I went to my first Mariners camp, in 1986, writing for the long-defunct Bellevue Journal-American, I was a newlywed with a child on the way, full of my own dreams. Now that child is married, older than I was then, and all three of our kids are grown, happily forging their own life paths. The worries have changed over the years, but not the feeling here of stress being magically lifted. Yeah, it’s ephemeral, but that doesn’t make it any less real, in real time.
This is the time, in the spring when the ledger is still blank, to fuss over your team, learn about the newcomers — that one could be a star, that one is overrated — and lament those who went away. It’s the time to sit casually in the bleachers, or sprawled out on the grass berm, and watch the muddled mess, the splendid chaos, that is exhibition baseball. And while you’re doing so, be sure to project the wonders that might lie ahead — manifesting themselves in the upcoming season in the good years, and at an indistinct point in the future during the down ones. But there is always hope here among the saguaro cactus, if you look hard enough.
Back in 1986, when I first started to get a feel for the relentless optimism of spring, the Mariners were training in Tempe, and guys like Alvin Davis, Mark Langston and Danny Tartabull were supposed to lead the ballclub out of the wilderness. It didn’t quite happen — but by the time anyone figured that out, a new crop of prospects had arrived to promote new aspirations, new dreams. It’s the unending cycle of baseball, forged in spring, when everything is still possible. Now the Mariners have moved to new digs in the West Valley, and young phenoms like Jarred Kelenic, Julio Rodriguez and Logan Gilbert are supposed to lead them to the promised land.
We’ll see. Davis is a Mariners instructor now, working with the young kids who want to be, well, him some day. Mr. Mariner is pushing 60 now (with the thinning hair to prove it). The circle of life is a tangible force in spring training, but the beauty is that circles have no beginning or end. They go on indefinitely, and so, I fervently hope, will spring training, and my immersion in it.
The most famous spring-training quote is from Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby, who said, “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.”
But I prefer this one by the great New York journalist Pete Hamill: “Don’t tell me about the world. Not today. It’s springtime and they’re knocking baseball around fields where the grass is damp and green in the morning and the kids are trying to hit the curveball.”
I hope to be watching iterations of that tranquil scene for as long as I can. How else is an old man supposed to feel young again?