It may be sport's greatest anomaly. Is there anything we await as anxiously, celebrate more poetically, than the arrival of Major League Baseball spring training? Is there anything we are happier to see come to an end?
If spring training seemed longer than normal this year, that's because it was - by a week or so - in deference to the World Baseball Classic. It seemed endless. The games began way back on Feb. 25 and don't end until Sunday afternoon: That's 40 days of exhibition baseball, the equivalent of nearly one-quarter of the regular season. Five and a half weeks of lineups with only three or four regulars getting two, maybe three at-bats a game, the balance played by unfamiliar names with uniform numbers in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Opening Day has arrived just in time.
Regular season trumps spring training, any player or fan will agree. But it is not just the start of the pennant race that we welcome every year; it is the sweet good riddance to spring training. How can this be? Remember the glow we felt those weeks ago, when pitchers and catchers reported? We don't get anywhere near as worked up about preseason football, basketball or hockey. Why do we feel differently about spring training?
Part of it has to do with history, part of it with the calendar. No game has a greater affinity for its history than baseball, and baseball's history is rooted in the northeast quadrant of the country. Until the Giants and Dodgers brought baseball to California, and expansion took it to Texas and other warm places, the Major League map was bordered by Boston, Chicago, St. Louis and Washington. There is no place inside that map that doesn't suffer from a cold, snowy, miserable winter. And every year, when that winter was at its most oppressive, the newspapers of the great cities of the Northeast would begin writing about baseball, and the stories would carry such evocative, faraway datelines as Vero Beach, St. Petersburg, Sarasota and Orlando. Those warm-weather datelines in the newspapers of cold-weather cities were the first sign in a gray, winter-bound baseball universe that the world would again be green and warm.
Spring training meant - and still means - not only the start of baseball but also the end of winter. People who care not a whit about baseball care about the coming of spring. However much football may have displaced baseball in the national psyche, the beginning of football training camp will never match spring training's universal, transcendent appeal.
Those early deliverances from the winter doldrums were strictly vicarious; but over the last quarter- century or so, spring training has become tangible to many, a mid-winter vacation that delivers not only pleasant weather but also the sense of being inside the game. This has only heightened America's identification with baseball's pre-season. For cities in Florida and Arizona, having a spring-training team in your town means having tourists there as well. Ever nicer complexes have risen to attract and keep those teams; spring training has become a profit item instead of a cost on a team's balance sheet, and the reasons for spring training have become as much about business as about baseball.
Modern professional baseball players don't need six weeks to get into game shape. Three weeks is more than enough for position players; 10 days to two weeks would probably do it. Who knows how much time pitchers might need; they are handled like delicate pieces of china in the spring because there is enough time to do it that way.
Now that spring training is over, we won't think of it again until the fall, when the regular season ends in disappointment for the fans of 29 of 30 teams.
But let us give spring training one final kind thought. It has again done its job - for the players, we hope, and for the fans, we know. For it has seen us through the last cruel weeks of winter and brought us to this moment: spring, and Opening Day.
Charles Fountain, a professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a frequent guest on ESPN's "SportsCentury" series, is the author of "Under the March Sun: The Story of Spring Training."