Why baseball doesn’t have a Gregg Popovich, and 9 more stray spring training thoughts – For The Win
The 2016-17 NBA season has doubled as a woke-a-thon of sorts, with coaches like Gregg Popovich and superstars like LeBron James, among plenty others, seizing the platforms their sport provides them to speak out on political and social issues.
Major League Baseball clubhouses tend to be a bit more buttoned-up. One could find plenty of individual examples of ballplayers discussing certain specific issues, and, for that matter, hundreds of examples of ballplayers who double as hunting enthusiasts tacitly endorsing gun rights, but far rarer is the Major League Baseball player who takes it upon himself to offer unsolicited thoughts on potentially controversial topics.
In January, Astros starter Collin McHugh spoke up on behalf of the city of Atlanta after Donald Trump made the false claim that Congressman and civil-rights pioneer John Lewis represented a “crime infested” district that is “in horrible shape and falling apart.”
“I live right in the heart of downtown, in District 5,” McHugh told For The Win earlier this spring. “It’s a great place to live. I’ve been there for seven or eight years, I’ve lived in the metro area pretty much my whole life, and I don’t like to see anybody talk bad about it. That was basically it.”
Asked why baseball players mostly seem content to keep mum on political topics, McHugh referenced players’ responsibilities to the league and their teams, saying, “It’s kind of a grey area in a lot of ways. On one hand, you want to be able to speak on behalf of yourself, but you know you represent more than that.”
Dodgers pitcher Brandon McCarthy, too, frequently uses Twitter to weigh in on or poke fun of political developments. A’s reliever Sean Doolittle and fiancee Eireann Dolan have worked and spoken out in support of Syrian refugees eager to find sanctuary in the United States.
“I think if you can try to just raise awareness of some stuff, you can kind of elevate the conversation,” Doolittle said at A’s camp earlier this month. “I’m aware that when we talk, when athletes speak out, you’re representing not only yourself and your family, you’re also representing the team, so you have to do it responsibly. But I think that if you’re educated on it, then you can raise awareness. I haven’t been trying to change people’s minds, just trying to make change the way people think a little.
“If you go into something trying to change somebody’s mind, it’s just human nature that they’re going to try to dig their heels in, or feel like they’re being pushed into a corner with someone trying to tell them their ideas are wrong. These issues have really touched on some of the things that Eireann and I have gotten involved with off the field, and they’re things we’ve educated ourselves on and know a lot about, and which we can relate to on a small level.”
MLB clubhouse culture abhors distractions, and players taking bold political stances risk drawing attention away from a team’s on-field obligations on behalf of viewpoints many of their teammates may not necessarily espouse. Earlier this spring, Cardinals outfielder Dexter Fowler, whose wife is from Iran, said of Trump’s proposed limit on travel to and from that country and other Muslim-majority nations, “Anytime you’re not able to see family, it’s unfortunate,” and in so doing subjected himself to a stream of online vitriol from angry fans.
For the most part, a ballplayer acting in his own self-interest — as we all do, pretty much all the time — stands to benefit very little from sharing political hot takes. And it seems unlikely the sport will soon see its culture shift in ways that permit or encourage guys opining as frequently or as unequivocally as someone like Popovich.
Here are nine more stray thoughts from 21 days touring spring-training camps in Arizona and Florida:
1. Clubhouse music will mess with your head
People still make a whole lot out of “clubhouse chemistry” and its impact on a club’s record over the course of a season, and certainly it seems like a group of dudes that get along real well will have a bit more fun playing 162 games together than a bunch of mercenaries with no particular affinity for one another. But trying to gauge clubhouse chemistry, without relying on sources that might themselves have some bias, is a difficult thing: Beat writers spend most of the spring covering the same clubhouse, and so can compare the team’s spirits against those in prior seasons but not really against those of their opponents.
For someone like me, who spends no more than a few hours in any given clubhouse across the course of the spring, the perceived “mood” of the room seems to depend largely on the music that’s playing. In one visit to Dodgers camp, with the clubhouse mostly empty, a group of unheralded relievers played ping-pong to the soundtrack of some extremely weepy country song. The next time I entered the same room, with a bunch more players around, throbbing hip-hop made the group seem loose and lively. A third time, a couple of players repeatedly played the audio clip of the “I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul,” monologue from Billy Madison, making the Dodgers appear at the very least a club of great taste.
The A’s, meanwhile, were pumping Michael Jackson’s Black or White the morning I visited. A bunch of dudes quietly mouthed the words as they passed through. It all felt very cheerful and accepting.
2. Phoenix has a very good radio station
On the subject: Both the Phoenix and Tampa areas feature throwback-heavy hip-hop radio stations, and covering baseball teams in both cities necessitates a heck of a lot of time in a car. But where Tampa’s throwback hip-hop station bafflingly plays Vanilla Ice seemingly seven times a day, Phoenix’s The Beat 101.1 is generally a really good channel. They mix contemporary hits with older jams and played a bunch of bangers I totally forgot about, like Scarface’s Smile. I feel like I came away from two weeks in the area with a far more thorough appreciation of current rap trends and even slowly came to like Migos’ Bad and Boujee despite an initial distaste for it. But I do think that someday we’ll all look back and laugh at the era in which we let Drake be a thing.
3. Cactus League > Grapefruit League
Attending spring training is a pretty awesome experience for baseball fans: It gets you hyped for the season and offers countless opportunities to watch your favorite players perform from different and much closer perspectives than you ever get after April starts. Every fan, naturally, would be best served visiting his or her favorite team’s spring camp. But if you’ve got two favorite teams or no favorite teams and you’re deciding between Florida and Arizona for whatever reason, definitely choose Arizona.
The main difference lays in logistics: The Cactus League teams all play within about a 40-minute drive of each other, whereas a 40-minute drive is a short one by Grapefruit League standards. The distinctions in distance mean Cactus League teams tend to travel with better rosters, you’re far more likely to find a practice or a game rained out in Florida, naturally, plus the Phoenix area offers a bunch of cool views of craggily rock mountains out beyond the outfields.
Both the Tampa area and Phoenix feature pretty serious traffic issues, but where Tampa’s traffic is downright existential, Phoenix mostly just feels like it’s at the stage of its development where it needs a more comprehensive mass-transit system. I’m no urban planner, but I imagine that’s probably a pretty complicated endeavor due to how spread out Phoenix is. I vote monorail, but it’s important to understand that I always vote monorail.
4. Special programming
Based on purely anecdotal evidence, it seems more and more pitchers are using weighted balls like those shown above and employing their own throwing programs in spring. In June, USA TODAY Sports’ Jorge L. Ortiz wrote about Driveline Baseball, a Seattle-area facility where pitchers use unconventional methods to develop better arm strength. Now it feels like there’s a guy in every camp working on the side with some of Driveline’s equipment. These things can spread fairly rapidly in baseball when they provide an advantage: As recently as September, 2014, only two Major Leaguers had ever swung an Axe Bat in games, and now they’re showing up everywhere as well.
5. I’m not a scout…
… and few things irk me more than when those with untrained eyes attempt to incorporate scout-speak into their baseball writing without input from actual scouts who know what they’re talking about, plus, as noted, I spend spring training entirely operating in meaninglessly small samples. So I’ll just note briefly that one dude who impressed me with raw BP power and an absolute rocket of a ground-rule double in a game I caught was A’s prospect Matt Olson. Olson’s not considered one of Oakland’s top prospects, but I’ll admit that the only reason I mention him here is that my main fantasy league is NL-only and I don’t need to worry about the other people in my league reading this and selecting him before I pick in the minor-league phase of our draft.
6. The beat writer you’re yelling at on Twitter works extremely hard
No one’s above reproach, and writing about baseball professionally is an enviable occupation. But know that when you’re beating up on your local beat writer on Twitter, you’re taking shots at a man or woman who is, in most cases, spending the bulk of February and March away from his or her family and friends to bring you news about your favorite baseball team before a six-month season in which he or she will spend half the time on the road. Covering spring training is extremely fun when, once again, you never really have to write about the same squad twice. When you’re charged with writing about one team’s baseball practices for 50 straight days, it likely gets pretty tedious.
7. Ghosts, bro
In an effort to get more stories about Milwaukee’s famously haunted Pfister Hotel, where ghosts have tortured baseball players for more than a decade, I asked a bunch of baseball players if they believe in ghosts. Few had personal stories of hauntings, but nearly all those I surveyed believe ghosts do exist. The only guy who said definitively that he does not believe in ghosts was Angels first baseman C.J. Cron.
8. Facing Strasburg in college
Speaking of C.J. Cron and stories I wanted to write but didn’t get enough material to run with: I also asked a lot of players if they could remember the first time — whether it was Little League, high-school ball, college, summer league, or wherever — they faced another guy who was bound for the big-leagues. Cron, who played at the University of Utah, had the best anecdote.
“We faced (Nationals starter Stephen) Strasburg at San Diego State the year he got drafted,” Cron said. “He was pretty much consensus No. 1. And I remember, back then we always had scouting reports with details of what the pitcher had, his miles per hour, all that stuff, for each pitch. And I remember with Strasburg, it just said: ‘Good luck.’ We knew we were in for it.”
Cron went 3-for-3 with a double in the game.
9. The Rockies are lowkey stacked
Spring injuries to Ian Desmond, David Dahl and Tom Murphy have tempered my enthusiasm for the 2017 Colorado Rockies a bit, but it still seems like that club could prove a surprise contender. With a quietly good pitching staff going back to basics and a deep lineup full of big hitters in their primes, the Rockies appear to have enough talent and depth for a wild-card run. They’ll need guys to healthy and some things to fall their way, like all teams do, and it might be tough to keep pace with the Dodgers in the NL West. But I remain fairly psyched about the Rockies this year, and figured I should note as much.