Today, the 30 MLB teams assemble for spring ball in two aptly named leagues with one half of the teams playing in the Grapefruit League in Florida and the other in the Cactus League in Arizona. For baseball fanatics, vacationing families, locals, and spring breakers alike, the allure is simple. The spring training atmosphere is intimate, admission is cheap, and the seats are close to the action. As stars and prospects take the diamond together, spring training becomes the ultimate prelude of American professional sports.
The destination for my pilgrimage was Kissimmee, Fla., which hosts the Houston Astros spring training camp. Despite the fact that the team that has struggled mightily over the last few seasons, I was one in a group of thirteen who flew in from places as far-flung as Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, New Orleans, and Austin. In the middle of a seemingly endless winter, it was an easy sell.
Our first game was on the road against the Washington Nationals, who play just off the Atlantic coast in the town of Viera. We were seated next to another group of men in their late 20s and early 30s from places like Virginia, Maryland, Ohio, and Maine. In the row ahead of us sat a group of nine men, a batting order’s worth of wisdom, who were celebrating their 30th spring training trip together. As it happens at the games, we struck up easy conversation with them.
“Watch carefully boys,” said one Pittsburgh Pirates fan in his late-50s, neither cautioning nor boasting. “You guys are gonna look just like us before you know it.”
If spring training is about one thing, it’s the hierarchical line between youth and experience. Astros pitcher Brett Oberholtzer was 21 years old when he got his first big league invite to spring training with the Atlanta Braves in 2011. Suddenly, he was roaming a campus with future Hall of Famers Chipper Jones, Greg Maddux, and Tom Glavine, among the most celebrated names of baseball’s last generation.
“When I was 21, spring training was more of an eye-opening experience,” Oberholtzer told me. “It was more of a ‘Hey kid, this is how it’s done at the big league level.’ Now being 24 and trying to win a job, it’s not that way at all. It’s kind of like high school. You work your way up the ladder.”
As we watched Oberholtzer take the mound against the Nationals on a warm, windy afternoon, the southpaw was still battling to secure his place in the Astros pitching rotation. The Nats hitters jumped on him early, scoring six runs in the first inning. One mammoth home run by catcher Wilson Ramos went clear out of the stadium while another home run by 21-year-old outfielder Bryce Harper appeared to be going foul, but was carried into fair territory by an lucky gust of wind.
“That’s spring training,” Oberholtzer said of the inauspicious start. “My aim is to repeat what I do time and time again and I wasn’t able to do it that day, that specific day.”
Despite the setback, Oberholtzer returned the next inning and retired three straight batters to end his day. It was a recovery that earned him postgame plaudits from Astros manager Bo Porter. The team scored a few runs to make things interesting, but ultimately lost the game 8-5.