The secret about spring training got out a long time ago. Nowadays, the quaint ballparks of Arizona and Florida fill up with sun-seeking fans and the teams charge regular-season prices. I've already expressed my dismay about this trend.
But I'm here to tell you that there is still a way for real fans to have a meaningful (and reasonably priced) spring training experience. It's simple: show up before the teams start playing exhibition games.
And yes, you'll have to find enjoyment in watching the likes of Brandon Crawford and Marco Scutaro rehearse their double play turn, over and over again.
If all you care about is the final score, this isn't for you. But if you appreciate the finer points of the game, come on down. In the week between "first full-squad workout" and "first exhibition game", you'll see teams work on the little things that win or lose games in the heat of summer.
I watched Giants third base coach Tim Flannery working with everyone from relief pitchers to veteran outfielders on baserunning. How many times has a Hunter Pence or an Angel Pagan been through this before? Yet it's important; that extra base gained from a good read on a line drive could be the difference in a game in August.
Batting practice? Sure, everyone loves the long ball (and when big first baseman Brett Pill hits them, they stay hit). But watching Scutaro and Buster Posey hit line drive after line drive to right-center gives one fresh appreciation for their singular talents. And you don't have to know anything about Kensuke Tanaka to recognize a Japanese import: just look at his batting stance and swing.
This first week of workouts has a languid feel to it. There's plenty of room to stretch out in the nearly-empty ballpark. Kids gently badger players for autographs ("Mr. Posey...pleeeeeease!") but otherwise, it's quiet. Just the snap of ball into glove and the rap of the fungo bat. Oh, and Shawon Dunston's laughter--a constant.
Sure, you'll need a roster to identify all these guys, but somebody will offer you one. For free. The kindly folks who work at the ballpark will recognize you by your second day, and you'll wind up meeting somebody who tells a funny story about the sleepy Colorado Rockies players staggering into a nearby coffee shop each morning before their workouts ("nobody orders decaf").
Yes, it can seem a little weird sitting in the stands to watch ballplayers stretch. But the experience is, I think, humanizing for both fans and players. You'll never hear someone boo or jeer; the intimacy of this setting renders that sort of behavior unthinkable. You might see a lady call out to Andres Torres, "Welcome back!" and watch Torres spin around with a big smile on his face and say, "Thanks! It's great to be here!"
I couldn't agree more.