Dan's Dugout: First Day of Spring Just a Month Away • Latino Sports

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Dan’s Dugout: First Day of Spring Just a Month Away

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Forget the calendar, the robin, or the first dandelion peeking bravely through the snow.

The first day of spring is when the famous words are heard “Pitchers and Catchers Report.”

Fans watch exhibition game at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter  (Dan Schlossberg photo)

Fans watch exhibition game at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter
(Dan Schlossberg photo)

Five camps open on February 18, making that the magic date this year.

Ten days later, the first exhibition games will be played.

Winter won’t be over for most of the nation but spring will have sprung — at least in the sunny climes of Florida and Arizona.

Spring training, like everything else in baseball, has become a commercial enterprise. But it’s still soft enough to retain a trace of the Good Old Days when players needed winter jobs to stay afloat.

Spectators and participants hardly earn on the same plane anymore but watching the games is still fun — even though stars never play more than a few innings or venture forth for road games.

With no pressure to perform, players, coaches, and managers don’t even mind signing a few autographs or posing for pictures. All teams start with 0-0 records and anything can happen. Just ask the Kansas City Royals and Houston Astros, clubs that climbed into contention over the last two years.

The 15 Florida teams comprise the unofficial, artificial Grapefruit League, while the denizens of Arizona make up the equally pretentious Cactus League. Golf scores are more important than batting averages and standings are published only for bragging rights.

Spring training is a time for unheralded rookies to seize their chances and for over-the-hill veterans to hang on for another season.

In 1954, for example, a 20-year-old infielder named Henry Louis Aaron got his chance when Milwaukee lost leftfielder Bobby Thomson with a broken leg. The rest is history.

Numerous are the 2016 ballclubs that want to lean heavily on rookies, who are cheaper than veterans and invariably more hungry.

Witness the Mets, who became National League champions last year by unfurling a rotation of

Noah Syndergaard gets ready for his first full season (Bill Menzel/Latino Sports)

Noah Syndergaard gets ready for his first full season
(Bill Menzel/Latino Sports)

young arms. Matt Harvey came back from Tommy John surgery, Jacob deGrom enjoyed his first full season, and both Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz surfaced during the summer. Fans would have seen all four last spring in Port St. Lucie.

After months of player movement, spring training is also the time to spot familiar faces in new uniforms.

Justin Upton has jumped to the Tigers, David Price to the Red Sox, Zack Greinke to the Diamondbacks, and Jason Heyward to the Chicago Cubs. Dozens of other free agents also found new homes, with only a handful (including Baltimore’s Chris Davis) staying put.

Trades also shook up the baseball landscape. Andrelton Simmons, the best defensive player in the game, now covers shortstop for the Angels. Closers Craig Kimbrel, now with Boston, and Aroldis Chapman, the hard-throwing lefty just dealt from the Reds to the Yankees, are also with new clubs.

David “Big Papi” Ortiz starts his farewell season this spring (Photo Latino Sports)

David “Big Papi” Ortiz starts his farewell season this spring (Photo Latino Sports)

This will be the last spring training for David Ortiz, designated hitter of the Boston Red Sox, but the first for Dansby Swanson, drafted first in the nation by Arizona last year but then traded to the Braves in the Shelby Miller swap.

The best thing about spring training is getting a sneak preview of the upcoming baseball season. But the second best thing is the conditions: daylight games on grass fields in small ballparks. Tickets, parking, and hot dogs are cheaper, people are nicer, and the endless parade of female fans in hot pants and bikini tops is a delirious diversion.

No wonder we can’t wait to hear the first crack of the bat.

About Dan Schlossberg

Former AP sportswriter Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ has produced 35 baseball books, including autobiographies of Ron Blomberg, Al Clark, and Milo Hamilton. Also a broadcaster, he is the host and executive producer of Braves Banter and Travel Itch Radio and a contributor to Sirius XM.

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