WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Spring Training is over at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, just like that, a month after it officially began with a game between the two home teams here, the Astros and the Nationals. There are workers and construction hats back inside the ballpark, finishing what didn’t get finished before that first Spring Training game. But the buses left a couple of days ago, and the equipment vans, and the bases are gone from the infield, the pitcher’s mound is covered. Women in long-sleeved green shirts are outside, sweeping up the parking lot on the Nationals’ side of the facility.
An older couple, man and woman, come down the steps on the first-base side of the field, and the man smiles and looks back over his shoulder at the ballpark and says, “Where’d all the baseball go?”
There will be a few college games here soon. A high school game is scheduled to be played here. But the Astros and Nationals, who had their first Spring Training here on Haverhill Road, who helped save spring baseball on this side of the state of Florida as much as this beautiful ballpark did, are gone until next year, gone to start the best regular season in all of sports, the 162-game season that begins all over again this weekend and somehow, because of the way things are in the city in which the Nationals play their home games, makes baseball feel as important as it ever has.
It felt that way last year, when the Cubs and Indians were playing an unforgettable World Series, one that provided such relief from the end of the election. Now it feels the exact same way as we witness the true result of that election, day after day and tweet after tweet.
I am standing across from third base with Ben Walter, who is the director of corporate affairs for The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, near the picnic area that was always full of people when there was a game here, and there was a game just about every day after the first one on Feb. 28.
I say to Walters, “It seems amazing that Spring Training has come and gone.” He smiles. “The amazing thing,” he says, “is that we got this thing open in time.”
Now the caravan has moved on. The Nationals open at home. The Astros open at home. The Cubs go to St. Louis. They are the game’s headliners now because of the way the last season ended, bottom of the 10th in Cleveland on Nov. 3, when Kris Bryant smiled right before he picked up a slow roller and threw it to Anthony Rizzo and the Cubs had won their first World Series in 108 years. You know how many people watched baseball that night? Forty million. It was 17 million more than had watched Game 6. Baseball did feel as big as it ever had in a very long time.
Think about something, by the way: For more than a century, and not just on the North Side of Chicago, we kept asking ourselves if the Cubs were ever going to win again. Five months later, we wonder who in baseball can stop them from winning again.
Of course, you start the conversation about the baseball season with the Cubs, and not just because they look as loaded as they do. As good as the Indians were in the World Series, as well as they played and as brilliantly as they were managed by Terry Francona as they were on their way to a 3-1 lead and looked ready to end 68 years of World Series waiting themselves, it was the Cubs and their waiting and then their comeback that ultimately made the ’16 Series as compelling and memorable as it was.
So, yeah, the Cubs are still the big story. But the better story right now in baseball, the game my pal Bob Ryan still calls the “greatest game ever invented by mortal minds,” might be this:
I believe the sport is entering one of the golden ages in its history.
It’s because of the greatest generation of young talent the game has ever seen. Because of the way every single part of the country is in play, and feels as if its team has a chance to be the Cubs this year. You want to start somewhere in explaining baseball’s appeal right now? Start with geography.
New York is in play. Chicago is in play, obviously. Both the Nationals and the Orioles made it to the postseason last season. In Texas, you’ve got both the Rangers and the Astros, and both of them rightfully believe they could make it to the Series this year. You’ve got Southern California covered with the Dodgers and Northern California covered with the Giants, because who ever counts out the Giants? And the Pacific Northwest is back in play, because the Mariners come into the season thinking they’ve got the best team in the AL West. We always hear about demographics when we talk about the various sports, and their audiences. But sometimes you do need to talk about geography, too. No other sport has the country blanketed the way baseball does right now.
Obviously, it doesn’t happen without a world of talent. Without stars. Especially young stars. Who doesn’t want to see what Bryant is going to do next at Wrigley Field, or Rizzo, or the kid at second, Javier Baez? Who doesn’t want to see just how good Francisco Lindor, the Indians’ kid at short, who’s got two years in the big leagues now and has already hit .300 twice, is going to get?
Look at how the conversation about young stars has expanded from Mike Trout and Bryce Harper just over the past few years. Manny Machado might be as complete a player in the infield as Trout is in the outfield. The Astros have a ridiculous talent in Jose Altuve at second, and Carlos Correa over to his right at short. And that’s just the short list of young guys at Minute Maid Park. You’ve got Giancarlo Stanton in Miami. You’ve got Mookie Betts at Fenway. Nolan Arenado in Colorado. Corey Seager in L.A. Gary Sanchez hit 20 home runs in 53 games for the Yankees last season.
That’s just a handful of gifted young position players, before you start talking about young pitchers like Noah Syndergaard, who gets the ball from Terry Collins on Monday at Citi Field, and is someone Collins describes this way: “an animal.” On the last night of the Mets’ season, in the NL Wild Card Game, Syndergaard went toe-to-toe with Madison Bumgarner, only one of the best postseason pitchers who’s ever lived. Bumgarner isn’t going anywhere. Neither is Clayton Kershaw, one of the best pitchers of all time. Or Justin Verlander. Or King Felix Hernandez.
You know how rich baseball is in talent right now? I’ve gone this long and haven’t mentioned Miguel Cabrera, one of the great right-handed hitters in all of baseball history.
Do we all want a shorter season? We do. It would be better for everybody. Do we want faster games? We want faster games, even in a world where pro football games keep getting longer, and college football sometimes seems the home office for the four-hour game. And I keep hoping there is a way that relief pitchers become less important than more important, because I’ll always think it will be bad for business that if your team has a dominant closer, and a dominant eighth-inning guy before him, that the game is supposed to be over. In football and basketball, things are just getting good when we get to the fourth quarter.
And did I mention I hate defensive shifts? Really hate them. Big hate.
The game isn’t perfect. Far from it. Just better than ever. And more important than ever. The buses and the equipment pulled out of West Palm a couple of days ago, and out of ballparks on the west coast of Florida, and in Arizona. Now what ended with the ball in Rizzo’s glove five months ago starts up all over again on Sunday. Baseball is back, in all ways.