Zimmerman laughed at the retelling, but the advice contained a kernel of logic. Ballplayers report in peak physical condition, after a winter of refined workouts often overseen by professional trainers. And then, for the first 10 days of their season — before the month of irrelevant exhibitions — they shag batting practice fly balls or wait their turn to cycle into drills practicing bunt plays and rundowns.
“Silly things like that that, everyone does just to say that they did it,” Zimmerman said. “Then everyone’s back is jacked up from standing around doing nothing.”
The start of spring training brings with it romantic notions of renewal, all those sun-splashed diamonds in Arizona and Florida providing harbingers of winter’s end and the gauzy promise of spring. For players, it brings tedium and the realization that they are about to waste a remarkable amount of time on drills that are mindless and games that are meaningless.
Spring training is an anachronism requiring hundreds of personnel members per team to pull off almost entirely for the benefit of around 12 people. Teams do not need it to make money. Position players do not need most of it to prepare for the season. Pitchers, especially starters, do. They need two months spent in a warm locale, in order to build stamina and strength in their throwing arms slowly enough to limit injury risk. And because of those pitchers, 30 teams will spend two months — and an extra week this year, to accommodate the World Baseball Classic — and more than 30 games preparing to play another six months.
“People are showing up more ready than they used to be, and we haven’t really changed anything,” Zimmerman said. “We haven’t adjusted to what the professional athlete does in the offseason now. I understand it. For me as a position player, it’s unnecessary.”
Teams have little financial incentive to keep the current format. Unlike NFL and NBA franchises, MLB teams cannot charge season ticket holders to attend their preseason games. Media rights contracts for spring training are essentially nonexistent. Even with favorable deals from local cities and counties who fight to host spring training sites, most franchises turn only a small profit, barely enough to cover the expense of creating a two-month headquarters away from home.
“Some teams can make some money, and some teams lose some money,” Dodgers President Stan Kasten said. “In the scheme of things, it’s not a huge number. It’s not a big consideration.”
Most of the industry views spring training as a break-even business proposition at best. Teams on the high end — such as the Red Sox, Cubs, Giants, Phillies and Yankees — can turn a profit in the high six figures or low seven figures, which in the scale of their revenue amounts to a drop in the bucket.
“It’s not a huge part of our overall business,” Boston Red Sox President Sam Kennedy said.
And the Red Sox have among the most fortunate spring training operations. Lee County, home to their Fort Myers, Fla., facilities, built the Red Sox an 11,000-capacity stadium in 2012 to keep them from leaving. The Red Sox have sold out every Grapefruit League game played at JetBlue Park — dubbed “Fenway South” — reaping the majority of the profits from ticket sales and stadium naming rights. (The revenue split between host municipality and team varies depending on lease agreements, but in most cases the team receives all or most of the revenue.)
“One of the things that has been discussed and batted around is the issue of spring training,” Kennedy said. “Do you need as many games and as much preparation time to play games to get going? If you asked pitchers, they would say absolutely, yes. I’m not sure the same is true for position players. It’s something that is talked about at the major league level. As we look at the overall schedule, we have to look at that.”
If the setup were to change, the primary hurdle would be the handling of pitchers. For all the advances baseball has made, pitchers still prime for the regular season the same way they have for decades, even as injuries continue to mount.
“We all have the same questions, and none of us have got any answers,” Kasten said. “Just a lot of theories.”
In the 10 days before games begin, pitchers throw three heavily monitored bullpen sessions. In their first live action, they throw around 25 pitches over an inning or two. Their next start will last about 40 pitches over three innings. The ramping-up continues until they have made four or five starts, meaning that teams must play 30 or so games to accommodate their schedules.
Meanwhile, relievers and minor league hurlers fill out the final innings, and hitters count the days. Zimmerman said he needs about 60 to 75 at-bats, about two weeks’ worth, before he feels ready. The rest of the time is spent in two ways. The first is trying not to get hurt, “which is a terrible way to play sports,” he said. The second is attempting to focus as if it’s the regular season — to play situational baseball, such as pushing in a runner on third with fewer than two outs.
“It’s hard to do that in front of 2,000 people and you’re facing No. 97,” Zimmerman said. “You ask [hitting coach Rick] Schu, ‘What does this guy throw?’ ‘We don’t know. We don’t even know his last name.’ The guy’s throwing 95 miles per hour, and you don’t even know what his secondary pitches are.”
Zimmerman knows how lucky he is to be paid vast sums to play baseball in Florida for a couple months, and he understands that his comments may come off as the complaints of a spoiled athlete. Really, it’s professional frustration. Spring training baseball bears no resemblance to the real thing — players arrive at the ballpark at 7:30 a.m., hit without a standard backdrop and have none of the scouting reports on which they base their approaches in the summer.
“Everything down there is the exact opposite of the regular season,” Zimmerman said.
And so, as images of cloudless skies and wheel-play drills warm fans’ hearts, remember: The players will be wishing to get it over with. Or at least that they had spent more time wearing cleats in their driveway.