Time for Grapefruits, Cacti, and RBI

While most of the country is digging out from under the latest blizzard it may be hard to fathom but spring has officially arrived.

Okay, so spring may not be officially here according to the calendar but try telling that to the Boys of Summer who are embarking on the start of their work year and getting down to the business of playing ball.

After shaking off the dust during inter-squad drills, and simulated games, it is now time for Major League Baseball teams to face each other in real competition as the games of the 2013 Spring Training season have begun in ballparks across Florida and Arizona.

Spring Training serves as a chance for teams to gel together and learn the strengths and weaknesses on the roster. Rosters are never the same from one year to the next so oftentimes players are meeting as teammates for the first time when they report to camp. It is also a time for players on the bubble of making the team to either hurt or help their chances based on their performance between the foul lines.

While it has been tradition for teams to hold Spring Training for as long as anyone reading this has been alive; that was not always the case. Late in the 19th Century most of the Major League Baseball teams were located in northern cities like New York, Chicago, and Cincinnati.

Members of the Baltimore Orioles warm up during a 2012 Spring Training game with the Tampa Bay Rays. Photo R. Anderson
Members of the Baltimore Orioles warm up during a 2012 Grapefruit League Spring Training game with the Tampa Bay Rays in Port Charlotte, FL.
Photo R. Anderson

It is still cold in these cities during February and March. As someone who never wore shorts on his March birthday until moving to Florida, I can attest to that. Also, the idea of an indoor ballpark was still about a century away. So, a warmer option was sought as a means for players to train before the season started.

In 1870, five years after the end of the Civil War, the Cincinnati Red Stockings and the Chicago White Stockings conducted organized baseball camps in New Orleans, LA. Jacksonville, FL saw action in 1888 when the Washington Capitals of the National League held a four-day camp.

While the exact start of the migration of Spring Training to the South is often debated, no one can argue that by the start of the 20th Century it had changed the game in a momentous way. While other states had been used for Spring Training in the past, today teams are divided between Arizona and Florida.

In Florida, 15 teams will compete in the Grapefruit League while the other 15 teams will compete in Arizona’s Cactus League. Instead of taking the time to list who plays where there is an easy formula to remember. With the exception of the Houston Astros all teams that reside west of the Mississippi River during the regular season train in Arizona. Teams east of the River call Florida home for the Spring. So there you have it as long as you know where the mighty Mississippi slices through the country you are covered.

After weeks of practicing against each other the games are now starting to count at Spring Training ballparks in Arizona and Florida in preparation for the regular season. Photo R. Anderson
The Houston Astros are the only team west of the Mississippi River to hold Spring Training in Florida.
Photo R. Anderson

And while Spring Training facilities were chosen for the warm climates they are not completely immune to the weather as a photo of snow this week at the Colorado Rockies Spring Training facility in Arizona can attest to.

Teams are also forced to dodge raindrops in games in Florida. Despite these weather hiccups, few would argue that Florida and Arizona still tend to be way warmer this time of year than most of the rest of the country.

I have often wondered why scores are kept, and winners and losers are crowned, during Spring Training since the games do not count against a team’s regular season record. It is not like a strong showing in the exhibition games guarantees success when the games start to count for real. The same goes for teams that struggle through Spring Training. A poor record during the Spring does not mean in all cases that the team will struggle throughout the regular season as well.

After weeks of practicing against each other the games are now starting to count at Spring Training ballparks in Arizona and Florida in preparation for the regular season. Photo R. Anderson
After weeks of practicing against each other the games are now starting to count at Spring Training ballparks in Arizona and Florida in preparation for the regular season.
Photo R. Anderson

So why do they keep score? The simplest reason is the competition level is more intense when there is something on the line. As players battle to be included on rosters having the games mean something, even if it is only bragging rights help ensure that everyone is playing at a high level.

The players and coaches are not the only ones who enjoy their time in the sun. Each year thousands of fans descend upon the ballparks to catch their favorite team in action. Others go from ballpark to ballpark to just enjoy the sights and sounds of a baseball game.

Many of the fans are also retired to the regions where the teams play so there is a definite older crowd present at many of the games. One of the things that I enjoy when I attend a Spring Training game, aside from the relaxed atmosphere and sunshine, is hearing the stories from people who are much older than I am who saw many of the legends play at Spring Training decades earlier. In that way the game is timeless. While the names on the jerseys change, and the prices of the peanuts and Cracker Jacks change, the game itself is mostly the same and is a shared experience that transcends the generations.

So has Spring Training rolls around once again travel plans abound as fans of all ages seek to get in touch with their inner child by traveling to see a game or two, or three, or four, or you get the idea.

To date I have witnessed games in six Spring Training ballparks. My goal is to visit each of the 30 team’s spring training sites in the next three years or so in addition to their main home ballparks. Will I reach that goal? Only time will tell. Still, if one has no goals there is nothing to reach for and life becomes mundane and repetitive. And really who wants to be mundane and repetitive?

Now if you’ll excuse me, all of this talk about sunshine and warmth has me a little thirsty for some sweet tea.

Copyright 2013 R. Anderson

Here’s a Choice You Have to Make, Which Bat Type to Hold at Home Plate

Paper or plastic? Coke or Pepsi? Boxers or briefs? The world is full of questions that equally divide people in terms of which answer that they feel is right.

I was on the front lines of one of those debates years ago when I worked as a cashier at a grocery store in college. I was usually pretty good about guessing which bag type each person would prefer. You had your tell tale plastic fans, the old school paper fans and the hybrid double paper stuffed in plastic fans. Although reusable bags were not as popular then as they have become, there were a few reusable bag fans as well. When the store happened to be out of someone’s favorite type of bag it was clear to see that some handled it better than others.

The world of baseball is no different than grocery shoppers when it comes to people having their personnel opinions on everything from whether the designated hitter is good or bad for the game or if it is ever good to intentionally walk in a runner. Another area of debate among baseball fans is bats. In particular, the two camps are divided over whether wood bats or metal bats are better.

Wood bats are a staple of professional baseball. Photo R. Anderson
Wood bats are a staple of professional baseball.
Photo R. Anderson

For baseball purists, it is wood bats or nothing. This stance is often backed up with phrases like, “the bats have always been wood,” or “the Bambino would roll over in his grave to think of metal bats being used.”

These fans also think lovingly of the Louisville Slugger plant that makes many of the wooden bats in the world and all the history associated with it. They would argue that the same love is not associated with the plants that make metal bats. So the wood bat fans are fairly entrenched in their belief that wood is good.

While only wood bats are used in Major League Baseball teams from the college ranks down to the local Little League use metal bats. Metal bats also tend to be the preferred bat of choice for most recreational softball leagues. So who has the better bat?

The metal bat fans will bombard the issue with science and statistics showing that a ball hit with a metal bat travels further than the same ball hit with a wooden bat. The wood bat fans will use the same statistics to say that balls hit with metal bats actually travel too fast and create a safety hazard for the infielders who have less time to react to a ball traveling in their direction.

College players like the ones pictured for the University of Houston have used metal bats for years. Photo R. Anderson
College players like the ones pictured for the University of Houston have used metal bats for years.
Photo R. Anderson

So what makes the balls travel at different speeds depending on the bat type? Well class it is time to enter Ry the Science Guy’s Lab of Science for the answer. There have been studies done on bat types for years and each one includes many formulas and equations and other rationale for what makes each bat type tick.

One could spend hours debating all of the data and trends associated with bat speed and ball velocity upon impact. We are not going to spend hours on that however.

The simplest reason for the difference in ball speed after impact involves which element in the bat/ball equation is flexing. With a metal bat, the bat flexes at impact with the ball and then springs forward creating extra force behind the hit. The wood bat does not flex as much and the ball actually flexes and dissipates some of the energy leading to less energy being imparted onto the ball moving forward.

Washington Nationals sensation Bryce Harper, shown during spring training in Florida, has been known to crash a few Washington area softball games to get in some metal bat work. Photo R. Anderson
Washington Nationals sensation Bryce Harper, shown during spring training in Florida, has been known to crash a few Washington area softball games to get in some metal bat work.
Photo R. Anderson

So there you have it, metal bats make the ball go further due to a trampoline like effect on the ball and the wood bat absorbs more energy than it returns. Given that simplest of reasons one would think that everyone would want to use a metal bat to get the most out of their hits. But, then again there is the whole issue of how fast is too fast.

In fact, a few years back New York City tried to ban metal bats at the high school level citing safety as a major reason. After threats of lawsuits and the usual political process the ban was lifted and each league was left to regulate the type of bats used.

Which is not to say that wood bats are completely safe to use. Anyone watching enough games will no doubt have seen shattered bats flying towards pitchers and infielders. In some rare cases the parts of the broken bats have injured the players on the receiving end. While the risk to fans in the stands is mostly limited to getting hit with foul balls bats and bat pieces also find their way into the stands. Given the choice I think I would rather have a wooden bat flying towards me than a metal one but I would prefer to not have to dodge either one.

Most ballparks have warnings such as this one to alert fans to the inherent dangers they face.  Aside from balls, bats and pieces of bats are also often hurled into the stands at high velocity. Photo R. Anderson
Most ballparks have warnings such as this one to alert fans to the inherent dangers they face. Aside from balls, bats and pieces of bats are also often hurled into the stands at high velocity.
Photo R. Anderson

I have often had my own questions regarding the metal versus wood equation. Primarily, I have always wondered why players would not use the wooden bats as early as possible in order to be accustomed to them in the event that they were fortunate enough to be drafted by a Major League club.

Instead, many players do not start using a wood bat until their first professional games and then there can be a learning curve as well as disappointment when the ball does not go as far as it did with the metal bat.

During my brief baseball playing career, which consisted of a season of T-ball and a couple of Pony League seasons, I used both wood and metal bats. I tended to prefer the wood bat over the metal one. I liked the sound that the ball made on the rare occasions that my bat made contact with it. The ping of the metal bat just never sounded right to me. I also disliked the metal bat for its tendency to give me stingers when it was held incorrectly. Nothing like severe numbing pain shooting up the arms to make one not like a certain bat type.

So the wood versus metal debate will continue to rage on and most likely will never truly be settled. I would be very surprised if a day ever came when metal bats would make their way to the Major League teams but one should never say never I suppose.

Now if you’ll excuse me all of this talk of bats has made me nostalgic for my old whiffle ball bat. It is bound to be around here somewhere and it never splintered or gave me stingers.

Copyright 2013 R. Anderson