Ask around Major League Baseball and most people close to the game will tell you the same thing about Spring Training—it's an incredible window into the game that a true fan needs to experience.
I've never gone myself, so I can only trust in the wisdom of those words, but my faith is strong.
Granted, the same thing that I'm sure makes the Show's exhibition run so exceptional is the same thing that makes it confounding to professional prognosticators—it's utterly meaningless.
As with every universal truth, it's not actually universal—there are exceptions to the hollowness of most spring numbers.
Certain ballplayers must attack Spring Training with a vengeance born from desperation. Guys trying to make the final roster simply to have a paycheck, back-of-the-rotation pitchers who want to avoid the purgatory of long relief, middle-tier performers scrapping for starting gigs and such will be full steam ahead.
But for the vast majority of the big guns—veterans and youngsters with jobs locked down—Spring Training is a day at the beach. It's about getting your reps in and working out the kinks while enjoying a calm before the 162-game storm.
Sure, the practice is important, but there isn't that soul-crushing, levity-obliterating pressure that comes with the regular season.
Pull an 0-fer at the plate or get shellacked all over the yard in March and one might be disheartened by a lengthy to-do list, but it's warm and everyone's still rejuvenated by the offseason.
After all, it's still baseball practice and nobody's keeping track. Naturally, there's much more room for autographs and light-hearted banter with the die-hards who care enough to travel to games that don't count.
Suffer the same nightmare during the season and there'll be no fun or games.
Suffer a string of them and that qualifies as a slump—as cursed a word as there is in baseball. Ballplayers who swear like sailors on leave won't utter the word. Dare to speak with an athlete in the teeth of one and perfect gentlemen can get downright ornery.
If you want proof of spring baseball's import, look no further than the San Francisco Giants and two of their key players heading into 2010—ace Tim Lincecum and center fielder Aaron Rowand.
Lincecum got battered around in March like a journeyman on his last elbow tendons rather than a two-time defending National League Cy Young Award winner.
The pride of the Giants put up numbers that might've looked right for the ace of a slow-pitch softball league. In four starts covering 11 2/3 innings, he got dinged for a 6.94 earned run average, went bi-polar with his control with 16 strikeouts against 10 walks, and watched his WHIP bloat all the way to 2.40.
Holy William VanLandingham!
Meanwhile, Rowand torched the ball like a Ted Williams incarnate—head included.
The Giants' center fielder registered 55 at-bats while hitting .429 with 15 runs scored, 10 runs batted in, six doubles, a triple, a homer and a 1.117 OPS. In other words, he was looking as right as Lincecum was looking wrong.
Flip the calendar to April, start the 162-game marathon, and the small ball universe steadied itself.
The Freak twirled seven innings without surrendering a run or a walk on Opening Day. He only allowed the Houston Astros four hits and fanned seven before catching the hook.
For all those superficial control issues in Spring Training, the seven frames cost him a mere 98 bullets for a tidy 14 pitch-per-inning average.
Rowand, on the other hand, took an 0-for-5 collar in the opener with two whiffs. The second game of the series was almost as bad; he wore the same collar, but only struck out once.
That made one of los Gigantes' bates mas caliente 0-for-10 with three strikeouts to start the season. Mercifully, Aaron broke through for a batting average in his first AB in Wednesday's finale and three more hits, including a triple and two RBI.
Nevertheless, both players stand as testaments to the predictable unpredictability of the transition from exhibition to real baseball.
Some guys will get in a groove in Spring Training and stay there once the regular season starts while others will go stone-cold like the Baseball Gods flipped a switch.
Look around the Big Leagues and you'll find examples everywhere.
In Milwaukee, the Brewers' Casey McGehee was anemic in March with a .274 spring OBP. Yet he's started the regular season with four hits in seven at-bats worth an OPS of 1.625.
The frequency with which the narrative repeats itself means Spring Training allows fans to brush up on diamond fundamentals just as it does so for the players.
In this instance, it reminds us that, as much as baseball loves its numbers, they're only one version of the story while leaning on a lot of fiction.
And March numbers tell even taller tales.
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