Friday, April 17, 2015

A Fan's Guide To Yankees' Spring Training

Originally published 3/5/15    

By Barry Millman    
Two spring training games in the books and already there's been so many words, tweets, talking heads, controversy and analysis- you'd think it was Super Bowl week or something.  But no, it's just another season of Yankee baseball and the circus is just part of the scenery when you're the biggest brand in sports.  

I get it. I live here. But I'm a fan, and fans aren't part of the circus. We're just like other fans. We love spring games. I love them because they're meaningless, so I can enjoy them in a different way, with the outcome as a secondary interest. I can watch them unfold with a different eye toward a different hope- a hope that something a little meaningful will emerge from a meaningless box score.  And when it does, it's a beautiful thing.

Take Aaron Judge, for instance. The 6' 7" 230-pound (and still filling out) mannish boy lived up to his first-year accolades in pro ball by showing the excellent plate discipline, exquisite timing and an explosive compact swing that makes opposing pitchers boggle and Yankee fans ogle. Facing big leaguer Mario Hollands, the outfielder worked the count full and then pulled the trigger on the three-run shot that allowed the traveling squad of mostly benchers and farmhands to snatch a tie from the Phillies. His 1-for-2 with a walk won't count in the record books, but it's certain that many who saw it play out on the field won't soon forget him. It was exactly the kind of performance and type of moment that attracts many fans to spring games; the fans who don't care if the lineup is bereft of headliners. The promise of seeing with their own eyes, the tangible difference between a first-round draft pick with less than 500 at bats in Single A ball, and the rest of the myriad talent on the field. 

Sometimes, witnessing that difference can be as startling as it is thrilling. Gene Michael, former Yankee GM and longtime team consultant on personnel matters, once famously described the theoretical ideal of a Yankee hitter as a big hairy monster. One can only imagine Stick had a major hand in putting Judge in pinstripes.  By any definition, he's a monster. And the circus awaits.

One other thing about that game I enjoyed immensely: Despite the use of a pitch clock and other rules designed to speed up play, Tuesday's 5-5 tie lasted three hours and nine minutes. Depending on which side of the game length issue you land, this result was either cause for concern or snickering. (Count me squarely among the latter.) As foretold by some but not most (count me squarely among the former) new rules won't fix umps who ignored already-existing pace of game rules and penalties in the first place when pitchers dawdled and batters did the hokey pokey. 

There's also a certain delicious irony in the fact that, had the Yankees gone out quietly in the final inning and lost 5-1, those new rules would've looked pretty smart. Damn those 9th-inning four-run comeback rallies! Good thing it was only a spring game, or extra innings would have really blown that shorter game strategy all to hell. It really makes one wonder if the committee working to shorten games consulted with the committee in the next room  trying to increase scoring this year. Such a conundrum- how will they ever solve it?  More rules, most likely. 

Or maybe they'll just eliminate extra innings and decide tie games with a 10-pitch home run derby.  More scoring. Shorter games.  

How could it possibly fail?