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Spring training and the good old days

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One finds oneself longing for the good old days when spring training was a time for hope and optimism, not for gloom and doom.

Dick
Flavin

It's that time of year when spring training reports have been traditionally as sunny as the weather in Florida or Arizona from which they emanate. Baseball is usually in the air, and everyone feels good about it. Not this year, though.

This year, all the baseball stories are about how baseball is losing its grip on the public's consciousness and how the owners and the players seem, at least as of this writing, to be determined to cause their mutual destruction.

One finds oneself longing for the good old days when spring training was a time for hope and optimism, not for gloom and doom. There would be stories, for example, about how the latest rookie phenom's hot bat was burning up the Grapefruit or the Cactus League only to turn as cold as the weather when he gets back north. In 2013, Jackie Bradley, Jr.'s batting average flirted with the .400 mark in the toasty climate of Fort Myers only to fall below the Mendoza Line in Boston. He wound up spending two years shuttling between Fenway Park and Pawtucket's McCoy Stadium before he could lift his average above .200, but he never ventured near the rarefied atmosphere of .400 or even .300 again.

Bradley has compiled a career average of only .230, but his defense is so elite that he became the Red Sox regular centerfielder beginning in 2015. When he reached free agency in 2021, the Sox chose to let him walk rather than negotiate a new deal with him, and he signed with the Milwaukee Brewers. He had his worst year ever with the Brewers, hitting only .163, but before the lockout took effect, the Red Sox traded to get him back. What was their thinking in doing this? Those are the kind of baseball stories we should be reading about, not standoffs between labor and management.

Spring training has been a time when serious mistakes in judgment have been made by both players and management. In 2006, Bronson Arroyo of the Red Sox made a misjudgment when he signed a three-year contract at a "home town discount" that even his own agent advised against his doing, but Arroyo wanted to stay with the Red Sox. The ink had no sooner dried on the new contract when he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds for Willie Mo Pena, a young slugger with prodigious power. It turned out that the Red Sox had made an even bigger mistake in judgment than had Arroyo when he signed his contract. He spent the next eight years in Cincinnati as one of baseball's most dependable and durable starting pitchers and became a great fan favorite there. Pena turned out to be a bust in Beantown and was dealt the next year to the Washington Nationals for a couple of nobodies. Pena last played in the majors in 2011.

The unforeseen happened in spring training of 1954. It was Ted Wlliams's first spring training in two years -- he had spent the previous spring flying daily bombing excursions into North Korea. On one of them, his plane had been hit by anti-aircraft fire and he had barely escaped with his life. In '54, by contrast, he'd be in the presumed safety of Sarasota's Payne Field. But within an hour of arriving for the first day of training, he dove for a ball hit by teammate Hoot Evers, Williams landed awkwardly, and he broke his collarbone. He missed all of spring training that year plus the first month of the season, and it cost him dearly. He led all batters in the American League that year with an average of .345 but was ruled ineligible for the batting championship because he had 14 too few official at-bats although he had also led the league with 136 walks, which do not count as official at-bats. The rule was changed the following year to include plate appearances, but it was too late to help Williams's cause, and the official batting champion for 1954 is listed as Roberto Avila of Cleveland with an average of .341.

Perhaps the biggest Red Sox story to ever come out of spring training took place way back in 1907 when Chick Stahl committed suicide. Stahl had been the Red Sox player/manager in 1906 when the team finished in last place with a record of 49 and 105. He had earlier in the spring of 1907 informed management of his intention to resign as manager, but no replacement had been named so he was still technically in charge. While the Sox (then known as the Boston Americans) were barnstorming their way north at the end of spring training, Stahl took a dose of carbolic acid in West Baden Springs, Indiana; it did him in. He left a note, which said, "Boys, I just couldn't help it. You drove me to it."

It seems almost like baseball is intent on doing to itself what Chick Stahl did to himself more than a century ago. The players are committed to doing what's best for themselves and the owners are committed to doing what's best for the owners, but the fans, the very lifeblood of all sports, seem to be just an after-thought, if that. Sure, we have all kinds of statistics no one ever thought of in the old days. We know all about spin rates on curve balls and launch angles on bats, but no one cares quite as much about the game as used to be the case. The product on the field has been in steady decline for years now and it's beginning to show. Baseball is going out of fashion before our very eyes and unless something is done to fix it, it will go the way of horse racing -- once a major sport but now still around but with only a few paying any attention.

- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.



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