Anatomy of the ‘Spring Training’ Story

oliverperez 1 Anatomy of the Spring Training StoryWe’re in the last days of March, which means Spring Training, those magical six weeks of believing in the perfectibility of mankind (or at least of baseball players), is about to come to an end.

The Spring Training Story, which I’ve been reading for years, is in some ways the token of the season’s unwarranted optimism in a game where there are winners and losers, and most are losers.

Take, for example, the March 20 Times story headlined “Mike Pelfrey Experiments With His Pitches,” in which Joe LaPointe wrote how the Mets’ middle-of-the-rotation man is going to mix it up with some new looks this year.

Apparently Pelfrey has added “a front-door sinker, a two-seamer that he threw for strikes against the Astros’ left-handed hitters. Pelfrey, who struck out three batters and walked one, said he was inspired to try the pitch after watching teammate Livan Hernandez throw it this spring.”

It might work!

Also last Friday, in the Daily News, I read about how Oliver Perez had finally found a kink in his delivery: “He had definitely gotten out of whack a little bit,” observed Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen to the News. Apparently, “Perez’s back leg had started to bend too much during his delivery, forcing the pitches up in the strike zone.”

They fixed it, and now they’ll win!

Earlier this spring, the Star-Ledger reported that the Yankees’ Brett Gardner needed to shorten his stroke. He spent his off-season in South Carolina reviewing 127 game tapes to try to fix the problem. “The film review only reinforced the things he needed to improve most—keeping his head in place, staying down through the swing, locking his eyes on the ball deeper into the hitting zone,” the story says.

Have these three players been chosen because they are the greatness of the coming season? No, actually: It’s just a part of the narrative of the Spring Training Story. The guy has a new slider. He’s fixed a flaw in his mechanics. That one new adjustment and he’ll be a 20-game winner or a .300 hitter.

“The names change but the stories always stay the same,” said the former Times columnist Murray Chass, who was with the paper for 39 years.

And then not surprisingly, by April, that pitcher or that hitter looks exactly the same.

“I get a kick out of it,” said ESPN’s Buster Olney, the modern-day Poet of Spring Training who was telling me he spent a lot of time this spring with some bushy-tailed Kansas City Royals this year and loved every second of it. “I’m certainly aware of it when I hear it from someone—I’m thinking ‘yeah, right’—but at the same time, I feel like the people and players and fans should be entitled to that March.”

“Now that I’ve been away from spring training for a couple years, I wonder why we’ve always done a lot of those stories and why newspapers have always printed them,” said Mr. Chass. “I suppose it’s a ritual, an annual ritual.”

Maybe so! I decided to take a very, very unscientific look to see how much positive news from Florida actually delivers in the season. I picked three random seasons, put in words like “delivery” and “mechanics” and “mets” or “yankees” into Nexis. I picked out three stories, and decided to compare the players’ performance at the end of the year.

On March 11, 2005, Newsday wrote: “Steve Trachsel has pitched in the major leagues since 1993, but that didn’t stop him from trotting out a new weapon yesterday.” A new slider! I decided to see how it worked out. He threw 37 innings that season.

On March 2, 2004, the Post profiled Yankees reliever Scott Proctor. “Acquired in the Robin Ventura deal with Los Angeles last July 31, Proctor gained about six miles per hour in velocity over the past year after Dodgers instructor Rick Honeycutt tweaked his mechanics last spring.” He pitched 25 innings that season, and had a 5.40 ERA.

My personal favorite is from the March 24, 1998, edition of The Times. The story is headlined “Baerga Fixes Leg Woes, Getting Balance at Plate.” Baerga was a star for the Indians for years and was acquired mid-season in 1997 by the Mets. He wasn’t the same player. What was wrong? Well, Chariots of Fire–style, he’d been playing all these years with one leg shorter than the other!

Here’s a sample from that story:

All of this has led to questions as to whether the 29-year-old second baseman’s best years are behind him. Baerga said today that he is out to change some minds this year. But, after getting 10 singles in 39 spring training at-bats—including 1 for 3 in this afternoon’s 3-2 exhibition victory over the Montreal Expos—Baerga is still without an extra-base hit. A cause for concern? Baerga doesn’t seem to think so. Neither do Manager Bobby Valentine and the hitting coach, Tom Robson. ”I feel really confident,” said Baerga

In the kicker of that story, Mets manager Bobby Valentine is quoted as saying, “The ball’s jumping off his bat. And his batting practice sessions are crisp. I think he’s used his spring real well.”

He hit .266 that year, and by the end of the season, he was run out of town.

We are just spoilsports.

“There’s no question that people are optimistic in camp,” Mr. Olney said. “When you first to get to camp, you hear a lot, ‘Hey how it’s going!’ ‘What’d you do all winter!’ It’s lighter. And in the back of my mind, when I was covering teams, I knew that by middle of May or June, one or two of these guys would flat out hate me.”

In February and March they still haven’t made an out. By June? Well, let’s say back pages tend not to be so forgiving.

“Every spring training you hear people say, if this and this and this and this could happen, this could work out!,” said Mr. Olney. “On February 15 or March 1? It’s O.K. to say that.”