Pitchers and catchers signal dawn of 2010

Pitchers and catchers signal dawn of 2010

Spring Training is sunshine -- therapeutic, inspiring, been-too-long-without-ya sunshine. . . . The beginning of Spring Training each year has always been a moment of hope, a reassurance that the landscape of snow and gray skies and barren trees will soon pass, and the world will again be green.
Charles Fountain in "Under the March Sun: The Story of Spring Training"

The moment of hope and reassurance arrives again this week, right on time. It is that moment when you know what's past is past, when buds and baseball emerge, when everything is new with a bright future. It is the moment you have waited for all winter.

Pitchers and catchers report.

They are four of the happiest words in our lexicon, right there alongside "Happy Birthday to you." We say these four words all the time until we are blue in the face. "Thirty days till pitchers and catchers report!" "Five days till pitchers and catchers report!" Pitchers and catchers may officially start reporting to their Arizona and Florida camps starting on Wednesday, signaling the beginning of a traditional process that is our way of life, ending with a World Series clincher and a parade through smiling masses. Happy leads to happy.

The defending World Series champions lead the way back into camps as the Yankees, Orioles, Royals, Pirates, Cardinals, Angels and Giants are the first clubs whose pitchers and catchers report Wednesday. First reports happen Thursday for the Red Sox, Rays, Phillies, Mets, Nationals, Tigers, Cubs, Reds, Mariners, Rangers, Rockies and Padres.

First workout dates for pitchers and catchers are Thursday beginning with the Orioles, Royals, Angels, Yankees, Mariners, Cubs, Reds, Rockies, Phillies, Pirates, Cardinals and Giants. Subsequent first workouts are gradual, with the Indians the final club to hold first workouts, on Feb. 23, in Goodyear, Ariz. It will be the first spring that both of Ohio's Major League clubs train in Arizona -- and at the same complex -- now that the Reds have left Florida to join the Indians, making it the first even split for the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues at 15 teams each.

Full-squad workouts will commence on Feb. 23, starting with the Orioles, Tigers, Royals, Angels, Mariners, Braves, Cubs, Reds, Phillies, Pirates, Cardinals and Giants. Other clubs follow progressively until the Twins and Brewers conduct the final first full-squad workouts on Feb. 27. Then Spring Training is completely under way and routines become established.

That is how the pop of the catcher's mitt and the crack of the bat first become pronounced and part of our consciousness again. But the first exhibitions take it to another level, as we get the first glimpses of mano-a-mano competition, of game situations, of hit-and-run strategy and home runs and strikeouts. Then it all comes back to us again. The Braves are at the Mets at 1:10 p.m. ET in Port St. Lucie, Fla., starting the exhibition season. It is the first actual day that the daily master schedule on MLB.com is populated with games featuring two Major League clubs, and from there through the regular season the schedule is active, devoid of games only on July 14, the day after the All-Star Game in Anaheim. This is how it all starts.

Spring Training is anticipation realized -- like the arrival of the weekend after the long workweek. But Spring Training, too, is anticipation heightened; it is Saturday afternoon and thoughts turned to Saturday night, because for all the sensory pleasures of Spring Training itself, it leads ultimately to the climax of Opening Day.

Opening Day has evolved into Opening Week around Major League Baseball in recent years. It will begin with Yankees at Red Sox on the night of April 4, followed by those traditional Monday openers. It will be a sight to behold as usual, and just imagine how it will feel for Twins fans who will attend Opening Day at their brand-new Target Field outdoor venue on April 12 against the Red Sox. Starting this week, the preparation begins.

Roy Halladay will be in Clearwater, Fla., for his first training camp as a Phillies pitcher -- not far at all from his former Blue Jays camp in Dunedin. Cliff Lee will be at his first Mariners camp in Arizona. Joe Mauer, the 2009 AL MVP, will report this week with Twins catchers to Fort Myers. John Lackey, after so many camps with the Angels, will report Thursday to his new Red Sox camp in Fort Myers, Fla. Stephen Strasburg, the top overall Draft pick last June, will report to the Nationals' camp on Thursday. The names, the places, the excitement -- it is back.

Truthfully, it is nothing like it used to be in the old days. Way back in the day, ballplayers typically would leave the game for the winter, many of them taking any available jobs in their local towns, helping to make a living, falling out of "baseball shape," and then all convene again in the warm weather to work their way back.

One tradition within the tradition of Spring Training is the matter of pitchers and catchers reporting first. The Baseball Hall of Fame Research Library delved into the subject in hopes of determining exactly why it is that pitchers and catchers report first. Jim Gates, library director there in Cooperstown, N.Y., said the best one can offer is this theory:

"Spring Training began, and for many years was primarily for the purpose of getting out-of-shape players back into playing shape by working them hard to shed winter weight. Pitchers were the most out of shape, and it was also felt that they needed more time to get their arms into shape. Catchers were needed to catch the pitchers."

Over the years it became a formal phrase within the National Pastime: Pitchers and catchers report. Although it is official, in truth it is something of a formality. Today's Major Leaguers and aspiring ballplayers stay in shape over the offseason, and position players are often right there around the Spring Training centers along with pitchers and catchers. Indeed, when MLB.com talked to 2009 All-Star Adam Jones of the Orioles during the recent Super Bowl, he said he was looking forward to showing up when pitchers and catchers show up. It was very typical.

You may be surprised to know that "pitchers and catchers report" actually is not the complete phrase, usually omitting other important people who are permitted to report. "Injured players" also are allowed to report with pitchers and catchers. Then comes everyone else. The fans are an important part of the reporting process as well; they come from everywhere, called by a game that refreshes them, so simple and yet so important.

"Spring Training is the essence of basball's core," said Dr. Charles Steinberg, the Dodgers' VP of marketing, in Fountain's book. "Baseball itself is pristine and divine. Everything you needed to play baseball was in the Garden of Eden. You had the grass. You had the dirt. You had a branch from a tree to make a bat. There had to be a cow somewhere to give you the ball and the glove. I was telling this story once and some wise guy said: 'Yeah, they even had a snake for the media.' But you had everything you need. Out in the sun. You don't need a manufactured court; you don't need a metal-rim basket. You just need a bat and a ball and the good Lord's earth to play on."

Spring Training is the GAME again...

For some, Spring Training means an annual sojourn to warmer climes, to escape and get up-close to their favorite players in ways that is naturally harder come summer. Donna Swikow is a Rays fan in Clearwater, who eagerly awaits the arrival of players back into her environs. She has been psyched for the "pitchers and catchers report" mantra to become reality.

"They are four words that remind you of the greatness to come," Swikow said in an e-mail to MLB.com. "A fresh slate, a new season, another chance. Baseball Spring Training is a multi-sensual experience. The smells: fresh-cut grass and popcorn. The sounds: peanut shell's crunching under your feet, a wooden bat (I loathe aluminum) hitting a ball or the ball smacking into a mitt. The sights: a bright blue, cloudless sky that hurts to look into, the sunburned skin of snowbirds. The touch of your own glove hoping for a foul ball, the sting of that pop up if you forget the glove. It's when the new year begins for a sports fan.

"Things slow down when you watch a ball game. There is a symmetry, a balance that no other sport gives you. Anyone can follow along. Young and old know the rules and can enjoy at their own pace. The sport is the same to me now at 48 as it was when I was 5 watching the Cardinals play at Al Lang in St. Petersburg. I have newspapers from the announcement of St. Petersburg, my hometown, getting a team. I cried every time I thought of it. The stadium was built where I grew up. Great things were to come. The Rays, my team. We were there when Aki [Iwamura] caught the ball and made the out in Game 7 of the 2008 ALCS."

Swikow said she will be there to see Yankees vs. Rays in Tampa this spring. She will be there at Tropicana Field for the last Spring Training exhibition against the Mets. "On Opening Day, I'll take a nap so I don't miss a minute. Can't wait for the season to start. But the next best thing, it's pitchers and catchers reporting. Those four words sound as good to me as 'You won the Lottery' or 'Will you marry me?'. Yeah, I said it."

One day last week, the physical education coach at her daughter's school, who is from Greece, asked Swikow when Spring Training starts. He was trying to learn the sport. "His eyes glazed over when I asked if he meant pitchers and catchers reporting or actual games," Swikow said. "Then I listed the upcoming games and where they would be, I actually told him the exact number of days. I don't know if he'll ask me about baseball again."

Spring Training is millionaire, rock-star Major Leaguers playing catch and eating lunch with $1,500-a-month Minor Leaguers who are hoping to maybe play at Double-A, and who may never get closer to The Show than this. The ballparks are small -- Minor League size -- and the crowds, though swollen tremendously since the 1980s, are still only a fraction of those at a regular season game. This gives a proximity that allows for not only autographs and pictures, but eye contact and conversation as well.

There's little heckling or booing in the stands in Spring Training; fans have a patience with imperfection in March that will be but a memory in July.

That says it well, and it is something that has been said for generations and generations. Spring Training is the moment of hope and reassurance, the time for baseball to take its rightful place again. This is the week that it all starts. This is baseball.

Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.