Because of the pandemic, I didn’t cover Twins spring training for the first time since 1992. Canceling the flight left me in the same place as so many other Minnesotans — worrying and working from home.
As a beat writer covering the Twins for the Star Tribune, I spent almost two months a year in Fort Myers. As a feature writer and columnist, I have spent one or two weeks per year there. Having lived in Minnesota for 30 years, Fort Myers has surpassed most of the other places I’ve lived — including Okinawa, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Missouri and Texas — as a second home.
I miss it.
But maybe not for the reasons you would think.
The weather? Sure. Leaving Minnesota for Florida in February or March is one of the best perks of a great job. But it’s not the primary lure.
The baseball? Nah. The games are generally unwatchable and meaningless.
Remember, Luke Hughes was a spring training star for the Twins. He finished his big-league career with a .218 regular-season batting average. Few jobs are won in March; most teams pick their Opening Day rosters based on past performance, not spring statistics.
The beaches? Nope. Most years, I try to have one meal within sight of the ocean, but that’s about it.
The city? Fort Myers tends to be overcrowded during spring training.
No, what I like most about spring training isn’t any one perk; it’s the work.
Spring training might be the most pleasant working environment in sports, offering the worst baseball but best conversations of the year.
Spring training is the rare — perhaps the only — big-league sporting event during which nothing really matters. It is the rare place in sports where athletes ease toward their goals, where they tinker with their craft without the pressure of producing results. A pitcher can change his slider grip, try it out for a week or two, then change back if it doesn’t work. Can you imagine the reaction if Kirk Cousins altered his throwing motion in August?
During spring training, baseball players love to talk about how hard they work, but in reality they are being encouraged to not work too hard, to not risk injury, to not burn themselves out. So, for most of them, spring training becomes a place to think and talk the game, to discuss philosophy and strategy, without the gut-tightening pressure of an important result in the offing.
Baseball always has been a sport of oral history, and the stories tend to get better and more numerous every year. In other sports, the locker room is a work and changing area; in baseball, the clubhouse is a social center as well as a work space.
I was talking with Kirby Puckett at his locker early one spring morning when Dave Winfield showed up, pulled up a stool and joined the conversation. Then a rookie first-round draft pick walked in, looking worried. Puckett told him, “Young buck, I’m going to leave my wallet filled with all this money right here in my locker. You take whatever you need, any time.’’
The youngster was Torii Hunter.
During a baseball spring training, front office executives, business-side executives, former players, national writers and the field staff regularly troop through the middle of the clubhouse, and most are happy to talk about the game they love.
Spring training is the rare place and time where just about everyone seems relaxed.
Part of the experience is the odd, transient, diverse, touristy vibe of Florida. It’s a place so rife with randomness that writers such as Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen have mined its culture for the comic and criminal intersections of carpetbaggers, grifters, locals, Native Americans, Cubans and snowbirds.
Spend enough time in Fort Myers or any other place like it and you will veer from the establishments trying to attract tourists and find exceptional food in the most generic of strip malls.
When I was younger, part of the appeal of spring training was the Florida nightlife. Over the many years of covering the Twins, what became more appealing was day life, watching players work at the craft of baseball under the Florida sun, each certain he will succeed.