Spring Training is something every baseball fan should experience at least once in their lives. For most of the country, it can serve as a break from the cold, but for all, it is a welcoming end to the dark time of the year without baseball. I often get asked what the best ticket to get at a Spring Training game is. It is the lawn, so make sure you take in at least one game from the lawn in your lifetime. I also get asked if there is a “hidden gem” you must experience, and there is. The minor league complexes are often right next to the stadium, and each complex hosts two games simultaneous to the big league game. During these games, kids and adults alike get to access to players you can rarely get anywhere else. You also never know who will show up at the minor league games. George Brett may show up to the Royals complex and hold court for 20 minutes just talking hitting, or Ivan Rodriguez may take a crying baby for a ride in the golf cart in circles between the fields to help quiet her down. Often you get a big leaguer or two not scheduled to play in the big league game that day head out to the minor league complex to get extra at-bats, or even see a player make a kid’s day by grabbing a bat and stepping in while two kids are playing catch, let the kid strike him out and turn to his dad and say, “Dad, look, I am a big league pitcher”.
There is one new must experience at the fields of Spring Training. During the final days of workouts, but before the games begin, go down to the fields and catch an inter-squad game. On the day I was at Royals camp, they decided to break out the teams as USA vs. International guys. The first three innings were big leaguers, before the non-roster invites took over in the fourth.
The atmosphere was both relaxed and competitive, and I have never heard more trash talk in a full ballgame than the first three innings this day, and most of that trash talk came from Jarrod Dyson.
It began after a seemingly routine fly out from the international squad, but it became clear quickly that the game was different as there were no bat boys like big leaguers are accustomed to, and so a bat was left just off the first base line. Catcher for the USA squad, Erik Kratz, jogged out, tossed the bat off to the side, and innocently enough commented “don’t worry, I got it.” From there the flood gates were open for joyous trash talk.
The USA squad quickly got a pair of runners on in the bottom of the first off Tennessee native, but International pitcher for the day, Joe Blanton. Blanton left a fastball out over the plate to Eric Hosmer, who crushed the ball high off the batter’s eye 400 feet away. From the dugout, consensus was it was Dyson again, someone was clearly hollering for Mike Moustakas to tag up from second once the ball left the bat, and he obliged. He must have mis-read it somehow even after it hit the fence as before he could get around third base, the ball was already making its way to the catcher from the cutoff man. In true early spring inter-squad fashion, Moustakas merely peeled off the baseline half-way between third and home, and walked himself into the dugout head bowed not in shame, but to hide him laughing at himself.
In the next half inning, a ball was fouled away down the first base line. Hosmer took off hard for the ball, but quickly realized it was purely a spring inter-squad, so he pulled up early rather than run hard into the short fence to make the catch. The ball wound up bouncing right off the top of the fence, very easily catchable, and “you suck Hosmer” came jestingly echoing in from left field where, to no one’s surprise, Jarrod Dyson was playing.
Not even the umpires were off-limits. The pair of umpires that were calling the day’s game were minor league umps, so when Lorenzo Cain caught looking on a slightly questionable third strike, someone hollered out to the umpire, “you’re not ready”. That line came from the dugout, but I think it is pretty safe to assume it was Dyson that said it.
After the three innings and the big league players were done for the day, I walked back to the clubhouse with a handful of them, where it was clear the USA players were leaving the field with bragging rights that would not soon be forgotten.
During this whole time, there was not a single curse word audibly uttered, nor was there anything but a full supply of fun baseball and laughs to be had. The bleachers down the third base line had kids of all ages, most of whom left with at least one foul ball, watching their heroes play the game as if they were still kids themselves.
The final score was not known, in fact some innings ended with less than three outs as the pitcher had met his days pitch count, but the fans at the field this day surely went home with more memories and stories than most games, Spring Training or regular season, could produce. So, when you are in the middle of a cold winter trying to figure out where to get away, make a trip out to Arizona or Florida the very end of February or beginning of March, and make some incredible memories of your own.