Wednesday’s reporting of the pitchers and catchers had a texture markedly different to those before it.
Mostly this was due to the new spring training setting, an invigorating change of venue that had one Braves clubhouse attendant of 50-plus years chirping like a rookie. “I may want to work another 20 years now,” he said while patrolling new dressing quarters that had an almost antiseptic sparkle to them. He had seen West Palm Beach. And he had seen Orlando. But North Port is a whole different ballgame.
Those who had been reporting to the Disney complex the last 22 years immediately took note of some major differences.
There was, for instance, the absence of parents wandering the edges of the stadium zombiefied by a constant soundtrack of happiness played against the crippling price of admission to the nearby plastic paradise.
Missing where all those things we have come to associate with Braves spring training: The unbroken miles of outlet malls, the forest of personal injury attorney billboards, the volcano-studded miniature golf courses and the traffic that turns I-4 into I-Forever.
The tallest structure for miles around the Braves new training ground were the light poles of CoolToday Park, marking this as a place where even practice baseball is the biggest attraction in this neighborhood, not just another ride at the world’s largest midway.
There was a single sour note to reporting day, namely that one of the Braves presumed starters — the 36-year-old, $18 million, high-mileage rental Cole Hamels — was in no shape to report. He noted shoulder soreness after some workouts in Texas involving a weighted ball, they say. What, was he long-tossing Ebonites in February?
Not good. Not good at all. There were enough questions about the stoutness of this rotation before Hamels got creaky and threw out the first angst of spring while still a time zone away from joining the team.
The Braves aren’t waiting on him. Official workouts for pitchers and catchers begin Thursday amid relative splendor.
As they opened boxes of new leather goods and loaded up their lockers with new toys, these players exalted in their surroundings. Everything is better here than it was at Disney.
The space. “Not so many people on top of each other,” said second baseman Ozzie Albies, one of the position players getting an early start.
The creature comforts. In Orlando, for instance, the dining area was so small that food often had to be prepared outside and schlepped into one cramped room. Here, there is a fully self-contained area dedicated to the comfort, care and feeding of the defending National League East champion.
The facilities. No more sound of players banging a large exercise ball off the wall in a narrow, dark hallway just outside the Braves clubhouse, as at Disney. No more wasting time waiting to jump on a machine in an outdated weight room. Here, there’s a large state-of-the-art weight room, as well as an outdoor conditioning area. “People are going to want to be here. It is a good place to come in, hang out and do your stuff,” Albies said.
The logistics. The Braves had become more and more isolated in Orlando, as the Grapefruit League settled on the coasts, especially here in southwest Florida. Now, they’re within at least an hour or so of the spring homes of Boston, Minnesota, Tampa Bay, Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Not so many of their spring road trips — there are 16 this season — will be grinding commutes through some of this state’s worst traffic. Maybe a veteran or two actually will go on the road now. “I won’t miss getting on a bus at dark and getting home at dark, I know that,” manager Brian Snitker said. “Just with all the proximity to other teams here, I think it’s going to be really good. We’re already looking at games where we can do all our work here and just go play the game and guys can leave from there and get home earlier.”
So, a few of baseball’s millionaires are little more comfortable today than they were a year ago. You must be relieved.
Perhaps of somewhat more importance is whether any of these upgrades will matter in September and October, long after this first spring in a saner, quieter corner of Florida is forgotten. How does any of this possibly make the Braves better?
“Everyone is looking for some small advantage,” reliever Darren O’Day said. “We have a small advantage here.”
Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos will tell you that a ballfield is ballfield and a bullpen is a bullpen wherever it may be built. A fancy new spring address may impress potential free agents, but he knows that’s way down the list of deciding factors because no dollar sign is attached. A numbers guy, he can’t really put an accurate measure on the tangible benefits of this spring resort.
Added Snitker, “Once the season starts, nobody remembers where they were training anyway. I think we did a pretty good job the last couple of years getting our guys ready to play. I just think in the process of getting them ready to play and getting your work in, this place is going to offer a lot better option than where we came from.”
This much was evident on the first reporting day: With one notable exception, all hands were here and happy. How a happy team transitions into a winning one is all that truly matters now.
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