By Mike Ruffin
To celebrate my recent retirement, we planned a ten-day trip to watch the Atlanta Braves play Spring Training games in North Port, Florida. We purchased game tickets and made housing arrangements back in January. We eagerly anticipated the trip.
The major league owners’ lockout of the players tempered our excitement, but we were optimistic that it would end before Spring Training was scheduled to begin. It didn’t. As the lockout continued and negotiations between the owners and players dragged on, Spring Training games began to be cancelled. The games we were scheduled to see fell later in the schedule, so we remained hopeful.
Then we had to cancel our housing arrangements so as not to risk losing our money. We still had our tickets, and we figured we could make other reservations when and if the lockout ended and games began. Then the parties in the labor dispute finally reached an agreement. Spring Training games would begin! And we already had tickets!
But no. Major League Baseball announced that they were cancelling the existing Spring Training schedule and creating a new one. The good news was that we received automatic refunds for the tickets we had purchased. The bad news was that we had to order new tickets for the rescheduled games. The other good news was that we were able to order new tickets with little difficulty, that we were able to follow our original travel schedule, and that we were able to make new housing reservations (albeit it at a higher price).
You may well ask why we would go to so much trouble to watch Spring Training games. After all, they are practice games. They don’t even count.
One reason is tradition. I began attending Spring Training about twenty-five years ago. I started going because my former college professor and long-time mentor Dr. Howard Giddens asked me to do so. He had already been going to Spring Training for fifty years or more by the time I started accompanying him. He started out going with his father and brother. Later on, a group of men from a church he served as pastor joined the group. Eventually the group dwindled down to just Dr. Giddens and his brother. By this time, both Dr. Giddens and his brother were well up in years. Dr. Giddens had been trying to get me to join them for several years, but I had always said I was too busy. Then one year he told me that if I didn’t start driving for them, they’d have to stop going. So I agreed to go. As it turned out, Dr. Giddens’ brother was unable to go anymore, so for several years it was just Dr. Giddens and me on the Spring Training pilgrimage. Dr. Giddens died several years ago, and I treasure the experiences and conversations that we shared on those trips. When my wife and I go to Spring Training, we continue the tradition that Dr. Giddens passed down to us.
Another reason we are willing to go to so much trouble to go to Spring Training is hope. Spring Training is filled with hope. That is the case for the teams. I have a t-shirt that I bought at Spring Training one year that has the logos of all thirty major league teams embedded in the number 30. Below the number the shirt says, “Thirty Teams—One Dream.” During Spring Training, every team has hopes of winning this year’s World Series Championship. Their fans share those hopes.
Individual players also have hope during Spring Training. Established players know that their place on the team is set. But there are many young players who hope to catch the coaches’ attention and take a step toward their dream of becoming major league players. Much of the fun of Spring Training for fans is getting an early look at potential future stars. There are also older players who know they are nearing the end of their playing days, but who hope to earn a spot on a team just one more time.
Spring Training is a time that is filled with hope. It is the kind of hope that causes people to keep putting one foot in front of the other. It is the kind of hope that inspires people to keep trying. It is the kind of hope that motivates people to keep on believing.
It took more effort than usual to get to Spring Training this year, but it was worth it. It was good to be in a hopeful atmosphere. It was good to be reminded of the motivating power of hope.