02/28/11 12:40 AM EST
Let's do Spring Training ... in three weeks
By Larry Dierker / MLB.com
The labor war was so acrimonious that it carried over to Spring Training in 1995. The owners threatened to open the season with replacement players and staged exhibition games in March with players who were willing to break the picket line. The fans were fed up. They had no sympathy for the players and very little with the owners. Toward the end of Spring Training, they played some exhibition games in Major League cities. Attendance was terrible. It was obvious the fans wouldn't support replacement-player baseball. Finally, as Opening Day approached, an agreement was reached.
So, Spring Training started again with Major League players, with everyone (except for many fans) eager to get ready as quickly as possible. It took about three weeks. The 1995 schedule totaled 144 games instead of 162. Attendance, which had reached an all-time high in 1993, plummeted. It seemed possible that the strike had killed the goose that laid the golden egg.
In retrospect, the strike proved two things. First, it is virtually impossible to kill baseball. By the time Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa staged their Herculean assault on Roger Maris' single-season home run record in 1998, attendance was robust again.
Secondly, it proved that you can do Spring Training in three weeks. No, the starting pitchers weren't ready to throw 100 pitches on Opening Day. But in recent years, with the increasing use of the bullpens, starters seldom threw more than 100 pitches a game at the start of the season anyway. Hitting and fielding didn't suffer. The players had been working out on their own and only needed a couple of weeks of games to be ready for prime time.
It was different in the 1960s and 70s when I played. At that time, pitchers and catchers reported to Spring Training 10 days to two weeks ahead of the position players. Starting pitchers were expected to be ready to pitch nine innings on Opening Day, and we were. Lots of complete games were pitched on Opening Day. I went the distance in three of my four Opening Day starts.
Back then, the position players complained about having to stay in Florida and Arizona, riding buses and playing games long after they were ready to go. They blamed the starting pitchers for dragging things out.
To be fair, even now, many teams need a month of games to be ready. This is not because the players aren't in game shape. It's because the managers, coaches and general managers need to make decisions as to who will break camp with the big team and who will be sent to Triple-A.
Teams like the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies don't need more than three weeks this spring. Their rosters are pretty well set. But teams like the Astros have a lot of decisions to make. They have many more players in camp fighting for jobs, and they feel the need to get at-bats and innings pitched for the players so they can evaluate them.
Playing B games on the back fields helps, but there is no real substitute for playing in the stadium in front of a crowd. And there is no way a manager or general manager can watch two games at the same time.
Still, I think every team could be ready to go in a month. Players are generally in better shape when they arrive in Spring Sraining than they were in my day. Most teams have offseason training programs to make sure they can hit the ground running in February. Agonizing over which players to cut and which to keep isn't really necessary. It seems like a big deal, and it gets a lot of print in the last week of spring training, but by the time May comes around, most teams have sent some guys down and brought others up anyway.
At this juncture, it seems like the long spring is still required mostly for building up the starting pitchers' arms. But, I think the protectionist attitude that prevails these days is overrated. Look what happened to Adam Wainwright. Last year, he pitched 230 innings. He probably started throwing a month before reporting to Spring Training this year. Then, suddenly, something in his right elbow popped, and now he is out for the season.
In June 1967, I was called to active duty in the Army Reserves. When I got out of basic training in November, I decided to go to winter ball to make up for the lost innings the year before and to get a head start on 1968. When I got to San Pedro in the Dominican Republic, the season had already started. I threw on the side for 15 minutes one day, threw 15 minutes of batting practice two days later, and started a game two days after that. After the seventh inning (and probably 100 or so pitches), I told my manager that I was tired and he got mad. Can you even imagine this scenario these days? I can't. But, when Estrellas de Oriente got to the playoffs in February, we signed a designated pitcher -- Mike Cuellar. Mike hadn't thrown a pitch since the previous September. He did not throw on the side. He did not throw batting practice. Instead, he started a game against the perennial Dominican champs, Escojido in Santo Domingo, at their ballpark. Mike went the distance.
I certainly don't recommend abusing pitchers this way, but I do believe they could be pushed a little harder. We usually threw three innings in our first spring game. Now they go one or two. These days, most pitchers won't throw 100 pitches in a game until after the season started. When I was managing, we pushed them a little. Not as much as I was pushed, but enough to get them past the 100 pitch milestone before the end of Spring Training. That was because I wanted them to be able to go deep into the game from the get-go.
In 1995, when Spring Training was only three weeks long, most starters went five innings or fewer in their first start. Still, the top five starters in both leagues finished with over 200 innings that year.
Even rebuilding teams like the Astros, who have over 60 players in camp, could be ready for Opening Day with only a month of Spring Training. Sure, the starters wouldn't be ready to go nine, and it may be tough to decide which utility infielder or backup outfielder to keep. But these guys can be called up and sent down.
I guess that's why I greet Spring Training with a yawn these days. As a young player, I was so excited I couldn't wait to get down there. And the young guys still feel that way. Even the managers, coaches, GMs and scouts are champing at the bit at week before it starts. You would be, too. If you live in a cold climate, you want to get warm. If you work in an office, you want to be watching practices and games instead. It feels great to get started. But it really isn't necessary.
I am eager for the regular season, though. Basketball is a great sport, but baseball is every day. Bring it on.
Larry Dierker played 14 seasons for the Houston Colt .45s/Astros and the St. Louis Cardinals. He guided the Astros to four National League Central titles in five seasons as manager from 1997-2001. The two-time All-Star pitcher writes a column for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.