Today was Opening Day in spring training in Sarasota, Florida. The Baltimore Orioles hosted the Toronto Blue Jays in a game that didn't count, an upbeat, cheerful -- even joyous -- occasion. Neither club has lost a game that counts in the standings. Everyone was in a good mood.
I couldn't help compare the atmosphere of baseball with other major North American team sports. Unlike football, neither club sought to destroy players on the opposing club even though these division rivals will play each other 19 times this season and would certainly benefit from placing a few key opponents on the disabled list. There were no bounties placed on injuring heavy-hitting opponents. This was not a pre-season hockey or basketball game where a well-placed check or a hard foul might plant intimidation that would carry over into the regular season.
That does not mean that baseball is a gentlemen's game. The history of the sport is filled with sociopaths like Ty Cobb, who fought with opponents and teammates alike. Yes, he did sharpen his spikes and, more to the point, he used them as weapons on the base paths. There have been occasional donnybrooks on the baseball field with benches emptying and punches thrown. There has even been a death caused by a pitched ball in 1920. A few modern players continue this aberrational behavior, but not many.
Baseball presents a very different approach to sport -- one of a more measured competition. That, in turn, is reflected in the behavior of the fans. At today's game, Blue Jay and Orioles fans sat next to each other both appreciating the performance of all the players on this first day in the sun. It did not hurt that compared with Sarasota the wind chill temperatures in their home towns were fifty degrees colder with snow on the way, and that the palm trees beyond the outfield fence in Sarasota's Ed Smith Park swayed with the gentle breeze.
Crowds at NFL football games seem much angrier. The game they come to watch is different, one where violence is prized and rewarded. Even though we now recognize what playing NFL football does to the bodies and brains of the participants, we yearn for the hard hits. Polls tell us that football is now our national game, and there is a strong message in those results. Baseball is a game from another era -- a quieter time when we could enjoy a competitive pastime.
Some will say that baseball is boring, and it certainly can be. It is slow, and often not much happens. The excitement is sporadic, and no one seems to be in a great hurry to get there. The best club in the Major Leagues will lose more than one out of three games it plays and the best batter only gets a hit one out of three times at bat. There are so many games in the course of a season that the avid rooter cannot be too upset by a loss. There will be many instances when the opportunity to score a run passes without a tally. There will always be another turn at bat.
The beauty of spring training -- in addition to the fact that it is held in Florida and Arizona while the rest of the country seems to be crushed by an endless winter -- is that for the spectators the games are just for fun. Your club has an opponent, of course, but that is just to make the preseason more interesting. Intra-squad games would be unbearable.
As the month of spring training winds down, clubs will select the twenty-five men they will take with them for the real campaign. Many who will play in these spring training games will be shuffled off to AA or AAA clubs, but they will likely be brought up to the major leagues as the season progresses to replace those who are injured or traded. For them, spring training is a critical try-out. Each year, someone surprises club officials in spring training and will begin the season with the big club. Who will it be this year?
Oh, by the way, the Orioles came back from a five-run deficit with seven runs in the bottom of the eighth to top the Blue Jays, 9-7. And there wasn't a cloud in the sky.