Spring training is fun, but don’t read too much into it

Ah, spring. That time of year when our brackets are busted, the NBA season seems like it will never end and ice hockey rinks across the nation are — nevermind. But most importantly, it means that Major League Baseball’s annual spring training is here, and that just as one lucky team is cutting down the nets in St. Louis, baseball will arrive to divert our attention from lesser matters, like school and girlfriends.

This year, I celebrated by meeting up with an old buddy from high school and driving down to Arizona to get a piece of the action for myself. About $500 and 390 miles later, we were at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, spring training home of the Oakland Athletics — the official team of the Thinking Fan — with hot dogs in hand and ready to take in our first game, the Oakland A’s versus the San Francisco Giants. As the PA announced the lineups, we realized that we had struck gold: The starters for the game were to be Oakland’s Barry Zito and the Giants’ Jason Schmidt. The sold-out stadium buzzed in anticipation of a classic spring training pitching duel matching Schmidt’s humming heater and Zito’s dancing curveball.

Of course, Schmidt came out in the top of the first and promptly gave up four runs with nary a single out, including a monstrous three-run blast by Oakland third baseman Eric Chavez. Zito, on the other hand, pitched magnificently, spotting his curve for strikes and fooling batters with his change-up. (Note to self: Try to get Barry Zito on my fantasy team.) After being pummeled for 10 runs, nine hits and three homers in less than four innings, Schmidt was done and the A’s had delivered an impressive win just in time for us to see it. (Note to self: Don’t draft Schmidt in the first round.)

Of course, it is still spring and the games don’t really matter yet. Batters are trying to get their timing back and pitchers are sharpening up. Between that and the fact that half the players are rookies or scrubs with no chance of making the Major League roster, spring training stats and records need to be taken with a grain of salt the size of Barry Bonds’ head. Look no further than last year, when the Seattle Mariners dominated the Cactus League with a league-best 18-11 record, narrowly beating out the Milwaukee Brewers, who went 18-12. The two teams then combined to finish 66.5 games out of first place. Last year, the Los Angeles Dodgers left Arizona with a pathetic 12-21 record. But when the games really counted, they tallied 93 wins, good enough for a division title. Granted, some good teams do perform well in spring training and some bad teams play down to their (lack of) talent. But it’s basically impossible to separate the real contenders from the pretenders. That’s why they play 162 games during the regular season, after all.

Some things never change though: the crack of the bat, the pop of the glove, the ridiculously overpriced ballpark concessions. Good thing I’m not 21, or I’d have been tempted to pay $6 for a Bud Light.

And that’s not to say that going to the games wasn’t awesome. When else will you have the opportunity to chat up Hall of Fame reporter Peter Gammons during an A’s-Rangers game or sit four rows behind home plate and watch Barry Zito pitch for $20 bucks? When else will you be able to get the autographs of Oakland’s next Big Three of Rich Harden, Joe Blanton and Dan Meyer all at once? For any real baseball fan, there is nothing better.