Another baseball season is upon us. And what makes a new season truly great? It's a reason to party. That’s right, party.
That includes you, Houston Astros fans. In your 50th and last season in the National League, throw back some ‘Stros and party now before you’re 1-7 by tax day and en route to your second straight 100-plus loss season. And you too, Mets fans. Casey Stengel would be so proud of how you’ll be celebrating a half century as second fiddle to the Yankees. But no one should party harder than A’s fans, some 40 years removed from their World Series three-peat.
Luckily, there is no better place to party than spring training. Here are the top 10 reasons why.
1. Anniversary Parties!
Long live the 1990s, baby, because the Blue Jays, Orioles and Pirates mark some important anniversaries to start 2012 — they just aren’t very good ones. It’s been 15 seasons since the Orioles made the playoffs and 15 years since the Blue Jays won their first of two consecutive World Series titles. But that’s nothing: it’s now been 20 — yep, 20 years — since the Pirates made the postseason. If this reminder makes Bucs fans want to hurl foreign objects, 2011 marked 30 years of postseason futility for the Nationals/Expos (and that’s if you want to count their 1981 appearance in that strike-shortened season as a playoff spot).
2. Spanning the Globe Party!
With homage to the late Jim McKay, MLB continues to span the globe, with 43 different countries or territories represented this spring. What gives? Turns out these are some mighty big (mostly pitchers) from you-mean-they-really-play-baseball-there-places? According to MLB International, among those sizing the 6-foot-4-inch department, lefty prospects Chris Reed from England (Angels), Alfredo Belizaire (Cubs) from Haiti and Steven Evarts (Yankees) from Italy; right-handers Etevenson Encarnacion (Indians) from Anguilla, Jorge Zavala (Braves) from Honduras and Aliaksei Lukashevich (Pirates) from Belarus; and outfielder Thomas De Wolf (Mets) from Belgium.
One-inch higher and you find 6-foot-5-inch Twins prospects, Hein Robb of South Africa and righty Markus Solbach from Germany, plus Phillies youngsters, right-handers Marek Minarik from the Czech Republic and Aaron Altherr from Germany. The Orioles are in on the act too with 6-foot-5 New Zealand first baseman Pita Rona. A few years ago, the Pirates brought us Rinku Singh — from India — and many laughed. But Singh is still pitching in the minors and Alex Liddi of the Mariners became the first-Italian born player to make MLB in decades when he did so last season. So no more laughing — admire. Incidentally, the Chinese National Team will train at the Mariners complex from March 22 until the end of camp, playing minor league spring training games.
3. Tallest Player Party!
Speaking of tall foreigners, pitcher Loek Van Mil (pictured, with the author) will be back in Angels minor league camp this spring. At 7-foot-1, the right-hander from the Netherlands is the tallest player signed to an MLB organization. And with a birth certificate name of Ludovicus Jacobus Maria Van Mil, the equipment room guy is glad Jarrod Saltalamaccia remains the longest name in the game.
4. New Ballpark Party!
The Chowdaheads from New England not only have a new manager in Bobby Valentine, they also have a shiny, brand spanking spring training crib. JetBlue Park will have a capacity of more than 10,000 and it opens to Red Sox Nation in Fort Myers on March 3 as the Bobby V era begins.
5. Throwback Ballpark Party!
Old school Grapefruit League fans yawning for a return to yesteryear, we feel your pain. Six different MLB teams will play at least one game at historic Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg this spring, a ballpark built in the 1940s that hasn’t hosted a full-time spring training tenant since the hometown Rays left after the 2008 Grapefruit League campaign (and yet the team wonders why they can’t sell out a playoff game).
In the past, the charming downtown waterfront ballpark has also hosted the likes of the Yankees, Mets, Cardinals and Orioles for spring training. The Tigers kick off the party March 8 when they play the Dutch National team at 1:05 p.m.
6. Split-Squad Pajama Parties!
Since the Reds relocated to Arizona for spring training in 2010, which made for an odd number of teams in both the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues, MLB has gotten a major case of split-squad-itis. Between March 3 and April 2, there will be at least one split-squad game every day except March 19 and March 21. MLB will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, while also celebrating Split-Squad Disease Day. You certainly won’t run out of luck finding a game on St. Paddy’s Day because there are 20 on the docket. If your favorite star player is on the road and they’re a split-squad, you might want to save your autograph program for him to sign for the next home game.
7. I’m Sick-of-You-Already Parties!
Even before the calendar strikes April, some teams will be downright sick of each other — and it won’t end soon thereafter either. The Phillies-Pirates will play each four times. So do the Diamondbacks and Rockies — before they face each other 18 times during the regular season.
The Indians and Reds will also tussle six times during the spring. But that’s nothing. The Cardinals and Marlins will face each six times over four weeks in March alone — and that’s before they even meet at Marlins Ballpark for the regular season home opener. If Carlos Zambrano and Ozzie Guillen blow an early gasket, you’ll know it’s because they’ve just seen way too many redbirds.
8. 2012 Division Preview Parties!
American League East Contenders (Grapefruit League): Red Sox-Yankees (March 13, March 22); Red Sox-Rays (March 10, 18, 27, 31); Yankees-Rays (March 7, March 21); Red Sox-Blue Jays (March 7, 20, 29); Yankees-Blue Jays (March 8, 14 and March 27); Blue Jays-Rays (March 16, March 23).
American League Central Contenders (mostly Cactus League): Indians-White Sox (March 15-March 27); Indians-Royals (March 6, March 18); White Sox-Royals (March 22, March 30). The Tigers and Twins play once in the Grapefruit circuit: March 21.
American League West Contenders (Cactus League): The Angels and Rangers play a home-and-home series, March 24-25.
National League East Contenders (Grapefruit League): Phillies-Braves (March 15 and April 1); Braves-Nationals (March 6, March 14, March 21, March 29); Nationals-Marlins (March 9, March 17, March 27, March 30); Marlins-Braves (March 13, March 22).
National League Central Contenders (Cactus League): Reds-Brewers (March 29).
National League West Contenders (Cactus League): Dodgers-Giants (March 6, March 17, March 28); Dodgers-Diamondbacks (March 31-April 1); Dodgers-Rockies (March 13, March 17); Giants-Diamondbacks (March 3-4, March 20); Giants-Rockies (March 7, March 22, March 24); Diamondbacks-Rockies (March 3, March 5, March 14, March 27).
Potential League Championship Series Postseason Preview Parties: Yankees-Tigers (March 24-25).
Potential World Series Preview Parties! Tigers-Phillies (March 9, March 11, March 19, March 25); Tigers-Braves (March 3-4, March 7, March 20, March 31); Tigers-Cardinals (March 17 and March 28); Tigers-Marlins (March 6, March 26); Yankees-Braves (March 9-10, March 28); Yankees-Phillies (March 3-5, March 11, March 23, March 30); Red Sox-Phillies (March 24, March 26); Reds-Angels (March 11, March 15); Reds-Rangers (March 22, March 26).
9. Make Ernie Banks Proud Party!
Flexible and want to make the most of your spring training vacation? Visit March 26-30 in Florida or March 28-31 in Arizona — and make Ernie Banks proud. Mr. Cubs always said “Let’s play two!” You? “Let’s catch two!” As in two Spring Training games in one day. There's at least one night game each day to complement a slew of day tilts so you could see two games in one day, plus, the starting nine often go seven+ innings come late March with the regular season approaching.
You’ve got 18 separate days in Grapefruitville to catch a day game, followed by a night game. But with most of the starters playing longer come the last week of March, the 26-30 is the best week to tell your boss to shove it and make yourself dizzy watching 10 games in five days. And here’s your schedule, kiddo:
March 26: Red Sox at Phillies, 1:05 p.m. (2012 World Series Preview?); Orioles at Pirates, 7:05 p.m. (Bust out your most colorful 1979 Disco outfit)
March 27: Twins at Orioles or Pirates at Phillies 1:05 p.m. (Your best disco hangover choices); Blue Jays at Yankees, 7:05 p.m. (Have’s versus Have Not’s Party!)
March 28: Orioles at Blue Jays, 1:05 p.m. (The 15-Year Occupy Anti-Playoff Anniversary Party!); Pirates at Rays, 7:05 p.m. (Our Owners Claim We’re Broke and Have No Money to Spend Party!)
March 29: Cardinals at Marlins or Blue Jays at Red Sox, 1:05 p.m.; Nationals at Tigers, 6:05 p.m. or Orioles at Yankees, 7:05 p.m.
March 30: Mets at Cardinals, 1:05 p.m. or Red Sox at Twins, 1:05 p.m.; Marlins at Nationals, 6:05 p.m. or Phillies at Yankees, 7:05 p.m.
For you Cactus League crazies, there are 15 separate days to double-dip with March 28-31 offering four consecutive days of utter day-night madness. Tips appreciated:
March 28: Angels at Reds (2012 World Series preview?) or Dodgers at Giants, 1:05 p.m.; Rangers at Royals, 6:05 p.m.
March 29: Reds at Brewers, 1:05 p.m. (NL Central Division Battle Preview); Giants at Rangers, 6:05 p.m. (Re-Match of the 2010 World Series)
March 30: Indians at Reds or Diamondbacks at Angels, 1:05 p.m.; Rangers at Rockies, 7:10 p.m.
March 31: Angels at Cubs or Reds at Giants, 1:05 p.m.; Rangers at Indians, 7:05 p.m.
10. Subway Series Party, Sunshine State Style!
For the first time since the early 1990s, the Yankees and Mets will battle for Grapefruit League bragging rights when the two New York clubs play a home-and-home series, March 3-4. The last time the two teams met in spring training was in 1993 way back when the Bronx Bombers trained in Fort Lauderdale and closer to the Mets' long-time Florida home in Port St. Lucie.
If the Yankees win Grapefruit League bragging rights, they get to give back Pedro Feliciano’s damaged arm to the Mets; if the Mets win, it will literally be the highlight of their 2012 season (Sorry Mets fans, but you know it’s true). If it’s a tie, well then just have a merry spring training and party likes it’s 1969.
Joe Connor is a contributor to NBCSports.com and author of the annually-updated online spring training travel guide, “A Fan’s Guide To The Ultimate Spring Training Experience” which is available for purchase exclusively at his web sites: http://www.modernerabaseball.com and http://www.mrsportstravel.com.
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