As a new season dons in the Northern Hemisphere, major and minor league players, including many who have played in the ABL's first two years, gather at sites in the US states of Arizona and Florida to begin the process of preparation for their 2012 campaigns. Spring training begins with a report date for pitchers and catchers, usually in mid-February, to begin their more intensive training schedule followed by a mandatory report date for position players generally one or two weeks later. For six grueling weeks leading up to the start of the Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball seasons, thousands of players showcase their skills and fight for positions and roster spots through team workouts, training sessions, and exhibition games. This week, TheABL.com.au takes a look at the basics of spring training and its place in getting players and fans alike ready for baseball.
A BRIEF HISTORY
In the late 1800s, big league clubs began sending their players to southern and western American states to prepare for their seasons in destinations like Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, California, and even Hawaii. The warmer climates in such locales enabled clubs to begin training earlier than their northern home ballparks as winter in the US came to its close. By the early years of the 20th century, nearly all major league organisations hosted spring training camps.
Though the structure and locations of camps have evolved and grown, including abbreviated camps to avoid heavy rail usage during World War II and forays into places like Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic for camps in the 1940s and '50s, the aim of spring training has remained with the same purpose. Gradually, Florida and, later, Arizona became MLB's two headquarters for preseason exhibition action.
Today, the Grapefruit League in Florida and Cactus League in Arizona each host 15 of Major League Baseball's 30 clubs. Throughout the month of March, teams compete in exhibitions between each other as well as with local universities and contests pitting members of the same organisation against each other (intrasquad games).
In World Baseball Classic years, as 2013 will be, some national sides tune up for baseball's biggest international tournament by competing against MLB clubs. In 2009, the Australian National Team was based in Peoria, Arizona-the spring development home of the San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners-where they took part in games against the Mariners, Chicago White Sox, and Milwaukee Brewers. The Aussies' victory over the Mariners on 5 March 2009 marked their first win of their pre-WBC tour.
THE PURPOSE OF THE SPRING
Spring training offers an opportunity for many players to compete for spots on their major league club's 25-player opening day roster, including those from an MLB team's extended 40-man roster and non-roster invitees. The latter category is comprised of players signed to minor league contracts who, though they may not be on a big league club's 25- or 40-man roster, still receive the chance to battle for a place on one of those rosters by the start of the baseball season. ABL players who have received non-roster invitations to MLB spring training this year include Canberra's Mark Thomas (Tampa Bay Rays) , Melbourne's Travis Blackley (San Francisco Giants) and Shane Lindsay (Los Angeles Dodgers), Perth's Brendan Wise (Minnesota Twins) and Matt Kennelly (Atlanta Braves), and Sydney's Brandon Barnes.
For minor leaguers, spring training affords the chance to vie for roster spots on clubs throughout an organisation. Most MLB teams have six minor league affiliates (a structure that will be discussed in a future story on TheABL.com.au), and those sides' baseball operations staffs assign players to the roster best fitting their capabilities and experience based, in part, on those players' performances in spring training.
Following the arrival of pitchers and catchers and, later, position players to their respective camps, teams participate in organised workouts and training sessions until the beginning of March when exhibition contests begin. Major league teams usually play a full spring schedule of around 30 to 35 spring exhibition games. Whereas major league spring clubs compete in official games where stats are recorded and, in some cases, television coverage is offered, minor league players compete in games as well, though theirs are slightly less structured. Baseball operations staffs form minor league spring teams in their organisations in addition to their major league spring club and follow their minor leaguers' progress against similar-level teams from other clubs.
At the conclusion of spring training in the end of March, players will be assigned to the clubs with which they will open the 2012 season. For non-roster invitees and 40-man roster members, that could mean a spot standing along a baseline at a big league ballpark. For those not headed to the big leagues just yet, a summer under the lights of Minor League Baseball parks nationwide is just around the corner.