As an outfielder with the Yankees in the late 1970s, Lou Piniella reported to every spring training overweight. One spring New York owner George Steinbrenner, weary of watching Piniella sweat off weight in a rubber jacket, hired former Ohio State running back and 1955 Heisman Trophy winner Hopalong Cassady to whip Piniella into condition.
Cassady and Piniella met one morning at an outdoor fitness course. Piniella was supposed to finish the course in less than 15 minutes. He didn't come close. "You ought to be embarrassed," Cassady said. "I'm nine years older than you, and I can finish in time." Replied Piniella, "Go ahead." Cassady did, and failed. "Every day after that," Piniella says, "Hop would try to finish in time and never could. While he was running, I'd be sitting reading The Wall Street Journal and drinking orange juice. At least one of us got into shape."
The days when ballplayers were actually expected to train during spring training are as long gone as dollar beers. For players and managers, the concept of spring training is an anachronism that faded around the time of big-cap bullpen carts. Ballplayers report to camp these days buffed by winter workouts with personal trainers. Competition for jobs is rare; general managers set the bulk of their rosters in December. Occasionally a backup catcher or a fifth starter is anointed in camp, but you don't need six long weeks for that. Spring training easily could be cut in half—as it was for one year, 1990, after that winter's lockout.
So why bother playing as many as 33 exhibition games per team? Money, of course. Baseball has few ventures as successful as spring training. The Yankees and the Diamondbacks will average more fans per spring game than the Expos did for regular-season home games last year. Snowbirds especially dig it. In Fort Myers, Fla., where the Red Sox encamp, you rarely hear a boo—or an r. ("Get a hit, Nomah!")
Indeed, spring training may be one of the few things that baseball gets right, which is why the fans don't seem to mind that owners make a killing off it Baseball is most idyllic in March: sun-dappled day games, $10 seats close to the field, autographs and smiles from ballplayers all come easily. The humble ballparks don't bombard people with audio and visual assaults as do major league stadiums. The young and fringe players, unspoiled by baseball's excesses, hustle. Fans in Dunedin, Fla., the Blue Jays' winter home, last week gave a standing ovation to Mendy Lopez, a nonroster player from the visiting Pirates, for his efforts to escape a rundown.
The more bloated the big leagues get, the more spring training sparkles with its retro, minor league simplicity. Maybe the players don't need six weeks of spring training anymore. The rest of us do.