March 15, 2012
The baseball season never ends. Not these days at least. Spring Training flows smoothly into the Regular Season, which proceeds for six months with only one three-day break; a break that is now required to be a classic, not a respite. The regular season then transitions into the postseason, now a month-long classic driven by viewership demands to last deep into October.
Then, the Hot Stove Season begins. The Hot Stove Season comes into spontaneous existence the moment the last out of the World Series is recorded, but in an absurd ritual, the various networks and websites insist on spending a week fêting the newly crowned champions and pretending that the fans of the other twenty-nine teams actually care how they feel about finally winning it all. Then, once the midmarket team that everyone with a monetary stake in the playoff television ratings now despises has been suitably interrogated, dissected and dismissed, the real Hot Stove Season can commence. Hours of speculation, top ten prospect lists and sightings of this year’s disgraced former superstar/revealed steroid user cannot approach the excitement of the Regular Season.
Thus, the first day of February is met with a plethora of articles pining for those four inestimable words: “pitchers and catchers report.” Spring Training has become such an institution for true baseball fans and moneymaker for Arizonans and Floridians that it is difficult at times to remember that what occurs on those sun-destroyed fields is neither meaningful nor entertaining. Traditional baseball fans soak up the banter and gossip about the battle for the Cub’s fifth outfield spot with all the enthusiasm of a newly minted second lieutenant told that the artillery will flatten the wire and his men should walk across No-Man’s Land. (There’s my cynical military history education for you.)
The desolation of the Hot Stove Season makes the incessant workouts and the split squad games seem fun, meaningful. The pointless statistics produced during spring training games present a tantalizing paradox for the sabermetrically inclined baseball fans. On one hand, these sabermetricians are so starved of new inputs at this point in the baseball cycle that they are desperate to embrace any numbers so long as they are accompanied by an acronym or percentage sign. Yet their sabermetric souls, their bastions of inner reason and objectivity cry out against such statistics.
“Park effects!” cries the bereaved Fangraphs writer as the couple in the row behind him remarks about how many homeruns Travis Ishikawa has compiled in the last two weeks.
“Inconsistent competition!” cries the desperate Hardball Times writer as he attempts to convince the man beside him in the Rangers hat that Nelson Cruz’s .500 batting average is not a sign that he is “peaking after thirty.”
Back at the hotel, a young man who comments incessantly on Hardballtalk whenever Ryan Howard’s RBI’s are mentioned weeps the immortal refrain of the sabermetrician into his thin pillow: “small sample size.”
Despite the pain and anguish that the annual pilgrimage to Spring Training entails, these men and women put in the effort every year because the month of March is actually the worst month of the baseball year. It is not the dog days of winter that suck the soul out of a baseball fan, it is the hollow statistics of Spring Training that can drive a baseball fan, sabermetrically inclined or otherwise, to do something crazy like predict a Pittsburgh World Series appearance.
The only difference is, the sabermetricians are painfully aware of every moment of their month of torture, while the traditional fans have evolved mentally to the point where watching Emmanuel Burriss bat third for a team claiming to be the Giants seems like fun.