Spring Training, Where Everyone’s a Winner

By David Roth

It probably didn’t mean much, unless you’re one of the few who believes that Russ Adams is on his way to a big-time power season and Ryota Igarashi will wind up closing out wins for the New York Mets. But Tuesday’s 4-2 Mets win over the Atlanta Braves was significant in at least one way: It was the first exhibition game of spring training, and thus a source of disproportionate joy for baseball fans. Even those of us with more realistic expectations for Messrs. Adams and Igarashi had to smile at the sight of baseball starting up again.

Ryota Igarashi
Getty Images
Ryota Igarashi: the Japanese J.J. Putz or a legitimate reason for spring optimism?

The delusional, gleeful ease with which fans can, however briefly, imagine Russ Adams (who launched a monster homer in the game) transforming himself into Chase Utley is a major part of what makes spring training so great. The games themselves are beside the point, although they do afford fans an opportunity to check out prospects such as Atlanta’s Jason Heyward and New York’s Ike Davis. In the New York Times, David Waldstein writes that the promising pair could help revive the once-heated rivalry between the two clubs.

While the future may belong to Heyward and Davis, though, the Mets’ right-field job currently belongs to Jeff Francoeur. A one-time breakout star in Atlanta who was undone by his inability to get on base, Francoeur joined the Mets via trade last season and has emerged as a media favorite in New York thanks to his plainspoken optimism and exotic (at least in New York City) Old-Time Country Ballplayer shtick. At his blog, Patrick Flood writes that Francoeur seems to belong to another era. “I suspect reporters and fans are drawn to Francoeur because he personifies that mythical part of the country that seems to be dying out, like pamphleteers and mom-and-pop music stores,” Flood writes. “I don’t know if there are any places still left like that — or if there ever really were any places like that — but I like to imagine that there are, and I like to imagine that they’re full of people like Jeff Francoeur� where all playing baseball means is seeing the ball, hitting the ball, throwing the ball, spitting sunflower seeds, and having fun.”

So, will Francoeur ever learn to take a pitch? His statistics say one thing, but the alchemical optimism of spring training suggests at least the possibility of something else. At his blog, Joe Posnanski explores the outer limits of spring-training optimism with a typically digressive post that dares to imagine the Kansas City Royals as a winning team.

Again, those are the outer limits. And no matter how well the Jason Heywards and Ike Davises of the baseball world play during spring training, they’ll likely find themselves in the minor leagues when the season actually begins. And while the minors run on hope as much as spring training does, they’re also every bit as much a business as Major League Baseball. For proof of that, one need look no further than the microscopic per-diem meal allowances paid out to minor leaguers. At Baseball America, Garrett Broshuis reports that minor league per diems will climb to all of $25 this season. To put that in perspective, most Division I baseball programs give their players $35 each day during road trips.

At ESPN, Rob Neyer remains astonished at the penny-wisdom/pound-foolishness of those miniscule per diems. “If a 23-year-old with designs on a big contract really wants to subsist on Doritos and french fries, there’s not much you can do about it,” Neyer writes. “But what’s amazing is how little effort the clubs make to encourage healthy eating. And an extra five bucks a day barely counts as even a baby step.”

Players and fans can happily subsist on hope until Opening Day, naturally. After that, we’re all on our own.

* * *

Manchester United is not used to this sort of thing. After a long run as the deep-pocketed behemoth of the English Premier League, United has suffered through a frustrating season this year. The most frustrating thing about it, oddly, has little to do with the team itself, which remains quite good. The club’s greatest struggles have been of the financial variety: The team is burdened with over $1 billion of debt, and American owner Malcolm Glazer is facing down what looks like a fan mutiny — or he is if the growing numbers of fans clad in green-and-gold (as opposed to the team’s usual red-and-white) at United’s home field of Old Trafford are any indication.

“The retro color scheme has morphed into a symbol of resistance against the Glazers, who also own the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. A group called Manchester United Supporters’ Trust, or MUST, is pressuring the family into selling the club — to a collective of fans, the group hopes, rather than another investor,” the Journal’s Jonathan Clegg reports. “The situation is testing the adage that, in sports, winning cures everything.”

* * *

Manny Pacquiao’s status as a boxing legend is pretty well set at this point, and nothing that could happen in his Mar. 13 bout against mega-underdog Joshua Clottey is likely to change that. Pacquiao’s remarkable toughness, craftsmanship and skill have earned him his rep as one of the meanest pound-for-pound fighters of the last few decades, but there has always been more to him than that.

In the Los Angeles Times, Lance Pugmire wonders if the 31-year-old welterweight might be looking toward the next chapter of his life. “[Pacquiao's] devotion to the sweet science is such that his sparring partner, Steve Forbes, describes Pacquiao as a human version of a ‘little Tasmanian devil,’ ” Pugmire writes. “Yet, Pacquiao’s popularity gives him options to make a lucrative income outside the sport in acting, music and endorsements.” There’s also the matter of Pacquiao’s candidacy for a congressional seat in the Phillipines. If he wins that fight, in May, Pacquiao will find himself shouldering a set of responsibilities far more serious than anything he has previously faced in the ring.

Clottey, Pacquiao’s opponent at Cowboys Stadium, can relate to that sort of responsibility. Clottey is a serious fighter who was immediately cast as a huge underdog against Pacquiao when he stepped in after the planned Mar. 13 bout against Floyd Mayweather Jr. fell apart. But while Clottey is a real contender, he’s also a real human with a real life, whose seven-figure payday against Pacquiao will go not towards payments on a second diamond-encrusted vacation home but towards supporting his impoverished family in Ghana and his rent on a small Bronx apartment. At ESPN the Magazine, Chris Jones delivers a terrific profile of this most understated of underdogs. As he did in his dazzling recent article about Roger Ebert in Esquire, Jones manages to create a rich, moving piece without ever making a big deal about it.

* * *

Even more so than the average genius athlete, Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant seems oddly opaque in many ways. Calling him basketball’s answer to Alex Rodriguez might not be far off, although there have been far fewer questions about Kobe’s grace under pressure. Whether Bryant’s inability to be pinned down as anything but a roundball savant is a result of how often he has been written about, or despite that, is tough to know. But while J.R. Moehringer’s nice profile of Kobe in GQ doesn’t do much more than previous profiles to get to the essence of its stubborn subject, it is at the very least an interesting read.

— Tip of the Fix cap to readers David Davis and Fred Sternburg and fellow Fixer Garey Ris.

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