Stapleton's 'Traveller' a springboard for 2016 season
By Doug Miller
Welcome back, baseball. It's a sentiment being shared by the players, managers, coaches, broadcasters, reporters and front-office executives of Major League Baseball, all of whom are traveling this week, followed by more travel and the home-and-away adventure they call a season.
Once winter thaws out and the sun-splashed schedule comes calling, they arrive from America's big cities and suburbs or from the farm and beach towns of Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. They buckle up on airplanes or hop in their pickup trucks and pull trailers. They roll to their destinations on rubber tires with families, luggage and pets in tow. They might wear different uniforms, but they share the dream that this annual journey into baseball's great unknown that starts on the highway to Spring Training and will end under the rarefied lights of October.
So off they go, obeying the signs and watching out for the traffic on the asphalt that winds its way toward Arizona and Florida. Every click off the odometer is like a metronome, because this yearly rite of passage has a distinct, repetitive rhythm to it. If you listen closely enough, you can hear the music in the memories that are being created.
Chris Stapleton understands music and he understands baseball. The country singer, who was a hugely successful songwriter for other star artists before releasing his debut album, "Traveller," in 2015, won two Grammy Awards on Monday, for best country solo performance and best country album. The title track from "Traveller" serves as an ideal backdrop for the images of the MLB entourage as it makes its way to Spring Training for 2016.
"I see the sunrise creeping in," Stapleton sings, as we see a time-lapse image of a ballpark going from January snow to the lush April green of Opening Day and the team trucks are packed to depart from these cold climes to the hopeful sunshine of March workouts and the exhibition slate. "Everything changes like the desert wind."
Last year, Astros second baseman Jose Altuve traveled from his native Venezuela to his team's spring complex in Kissimmee, Fla., with inspirational confidence in a young club on the rise that proved prescient. He knew there was enough talent and drive for things to change fast for Houston.
"I think we have the team to go to the playoffs this year," Altuve said. "We have to keep working hard and get ready and start the season with a good feel."
Boy, was he ever right. The Astros came within a few innings of toppling the Royals in the American League Division Series, and the Royals went on to win the World Series. Now Houston embarks on the followup season with another strong roster that should include a full year of AL Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa for the first time in the 21-year-old phenom's career.
"I'm just a traveller on this earth, sure as my heart's behind the pocket of my shirt," Stapleton continues, describing this life of packed highways, the airport tarmacs under bright blue skies, card games, electronic devices and old-school camaraderie that liven up the bus rides for hard-working musicians and elite athletes alike. Exit signs point to stops along the never-ending tour, where adoring fans wait for autographs and a chance to see their favorite performers do what they do best.
The wheels keep rolling as Spring Training looms ever closer. Salvador Perez could have a lot on his mind with a contract situation to be worked out, but he's heading to camp in Surprise, Ariz., as the catcher for the World Series champion Royals. The defense of a title begins now, and that's what he seems to be most focused on.
"We have to wait for [the contract reworking]," Perez said. "I'm happy either way. I'm happy no matter what. I'm here to play the game.
"I don't care. I'll just play hard and keep my concentration and help my teammates. [And] try to get back to the World Series."
That's where two of the best players in the game want to end up, and Mike Trout of the Angels and Bryce Harper of the Nationals have some work to do to get there. Neither of their clubs qualified for the postseason in 2015. Both phenom outfielders and unanimous league MVPs (Harper in the National League last year, Trout in the AL in 2014) know individual honors never eclipse the ultimate team victory.
"Although this trophy represents the great year that I had, I'm still not satisfied as a player," Harper said last month while accepting his MVP Award.
"The most important thing about individual accolades is how those accolades can help a great team become the best team in baseball."
That's why they're all on the road now, and soon enough, the literal ride ends and the symbolic one begins. Baseball welcomes us all back at the complexes of the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues.
Players get off the buses and greet the stadium attendants as they prepare for springs of rejuvenation and optimism. The immaculate Spring Training epicenters sparkle as the game's greatest -- Adrian Gonzalez of the Dodgers, Giancarlo Stanton of the Marlins, and the list goes on -- begin to limber up and shake off that winter rust.
"I couldn't tell you honey, I don't know, where I'm going but I've got to go," Stapleton sings, and when it comes to baseball, truer words are hard to find.
We simply have no idea who will hoist the Commissioner's Trophy on some chilly autumn night to come, and we love the fact that we don't know. That's why they play 162. That's why they get started now.
The traveling ends now, only to start again in April. Baseball is back, and that's a beautiful song in itself.
Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.