By Dan Bernstein–
GLENDALE, AZ –The fat guy in the yellow, nylon ball-cap sitting on the grassy slope down the third-base line cheers the second out of the seventh inning.
Next to him in the seats, a family of three chants dutifully to the call-and-response of Harry Belafonte’s cry of “Dayyyy-O!” as it roars crisply from the PA speakers.
Camelback Ranch is overstaffed with ushers. Every other person seems to be a smiling retiree who can’t wait for the chance to help you find your seat, the italian-ice concession or a bathroom. Everywhere is the sticky-sweet smell of fresh kettle corn.
I have no idea who most of these “Dodgers” and “White Sox” are by this time in the game, with A-ball kids manning the positions. I have no idea who is winning.
This is baseball, but not really.
Spring training games bring out the ritual in our most ritualistic sport. There are people here keeping score, believe it or not. Painstakingly marking hits and outs in a little grid to chronicle something of no importance, simply because they want to.
The cheering is just reflex, because we have no idea what a given player is trying to do to get ready for the games that count. Your team’s pitcher may give up a dribbler into the hole for a run-scoring single that loses the game, but he executed to perfection the new cutter he’s developing.
A one-hopper to second for a 4-3 out may have been due to the batter practicing his situational, inside-out swing against live, opposing pitching. It’s all good.
Even as this is known by everyone in attendance, the roles are played once the game begins.
This is the only sport that bunches its teams far away from home for glorified practices that simulate reality. NFL teams will occasionally meet for a scrimmage on one small college campus or another, but nothing happens that resembles a game. They like their preseason games so much, they want to get rid of two of them.
NBA and NHL teams barnstorm through their exhibition slate before each season, but by then they are about ready to go, and are playing in their big arenas. Tickets for those are sold by including them in season packages.
Spring Training baseball games, then, exist in a strange place. The atmosphere is incredibly pleasant, but the crowd’s relationship with the events and the action is odd. It’s as if they have come together to agree to pretend to care about what’s happening, all while soaking up the fact that it is baseball, and baseball is good.
Vacationers, hard-core armchair GMs, locals, transplants, fringe kooks and player-seeking vixen have all made the trip to the park. Same mix every year, every smallish stadium, whether out here in the brown desert or across the country in the mangroves and citrus.
I have seen these games in both leagues, enjoying numerous ballpark experiences in both Florida and here, going back more than 20 years.
There are few experiences for fans of anything – sports or any other form of entertainment – that create this dynamic, where the mere opportunity to go through the motions of being a fan draws people to watch a game that they know has no meaning, and react to it as if it does.
It makes something as relatively unimportant as these lazy days seem otherwise.
Dan Bernstein has been the co-host of “Boers and Bernstein” since 1999. He joined the station as a reporter/anchor in 1995. The Boers and Bernstein Show airs every weekday from 1PM to 6PM on The Score, 670AM. Read more of Bernstein’s blogs here.
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