Ready or not, baseball begins spring training this week

By Tyler Kepner

Steve Sparks is heading to spring training soon to broadcast the Houston Astros’ exhibition games on radio. But with the sport and the country still in the grip of the coronavirus, he will miss the up-close access that gives spring training its charm.

“We’ll probably have some roped-off areas where we can get to a certain spot, but not like those days where you could stand right next to the bullpen, watch the prospects and listen to the teaching,” said Sparks, a former major league pitcher. “One day I was 8 or 10 feet away from Justin Verlander throwing in the bullpen, seeing him look at an iPad after every pitch and making this one adjustment that I was able to talk about for half of a season because of what it did for his fastball.”

Fans, too, can often get close enough for their own moments of wonder at complexes in Florida and Arizona, which open for pitchers and catchers for 15 teams Wednesday and all teams by Friday. Most teams let fans roam the back fields with few restrictions. In Mesa, Arizona, the Chicago Cubs encourage fans to tailgate beside the players’ walkway from the training complex to the ballpark, bringing a touch of Wrigleyville to the desert.

Alas, this spring will be different. Attendance will be limited to 20% to 25% of capacity, depending on the city. The usual ambience — crowded grassy berms above the outfield walls, fans snagging autographs — will take a hiatus. Even the minor leaguers will keep their distance; most of them will not report to spring training facilities until the big leaguers leave town.

At least players in Florida will get a break from two- or three-hour bus rides. The five teams based in the east coast of the state — the New York Mets, the Houston Astros, the Washington Nationals, the Miami Marlins and the St. Louis Cardinals — will play against only one another, and the teams that train in the Tampa area will not play the teams in the Fort Myers area.

The changes make last spring training seem much longer than 12 months ago. Back then, the industry was consumed by the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal. Three managers and a general manager were fired over it, and the Houston players faced severe backlash from colleagues around the league and fans at exhibition games. The pandemic abruptly changed everything.

During a four-month shutdown, the commissioner’s office and the union bickered over the details of the restart, an early battleground for the painstaking negotiations to replace the collective bargaining agreement that expires after this season.

The sides assumed their hard lines again this winter. With support from city officials in the hard-hit Phoenix area, owners proposed pushing back spring training, staging opening day in late April and shortening the schedule to 154 games. Players would get full pay, with a universal designated hitter and expanded playoffs as part of the deal. The union rejected that plan without a counterproposal, retaining the expanded playoffs as a bargaining tool to get the larger-scale changes it wants in the next CBA.

Barring a change, then, the league will head into an uncertain future by turning to the recent past, with pitchers hitting in National League parks and the same playoff format as was held from 2012 through 2019 — three division winners and two wild-card teams in each league. Last season, eight teams from each league qualified for the postseason, and the designated hitter was used in all games.

“I don’t understand why we don’t have a DH,” Cubs outfielder Ian Happ said last week on MLB Network Radio. “I think for both sides, for the fans, for the game, for health and safety — there’s no reason why the DH shouldn’t be in there. It shouldn’t be tied to anything. The DH makes sense for the betterment of the game. It makes sense for the future, it makes sense for keeping pitchers healthy. Nobody wants to see Max Scherzer, Jon Lester or Kyle Hendricks hit. They want to see them strike guys out. They want to see them be the aces that they are.”

Two innovations from last season will remain: Extra innings will begin with a runner on second base, and games will last seven innings during doubleheaders. (Some spring training exhibitions will be limited to five innings.) The league will also introduce a new ball that adheres closer to the middle of the existing specification range — in other words, slightly lighter and less bouncy, in hopes of curbing the majors’ home run surge.

For some pitchers, this adjustment confirmed suspicions that the league had juiced the old ball to generate more homers. In any case, if last season proved anything, it was the timeless lesson that pitching usually wins. The Los Angeles Dodgers had the best ERA in the majors and won the World Series. They beat the Tampa Bay Rays, who had the best ERA in the American League.

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