PHOENIX – It’s a daily struggle not to get sucked into spring training narratives that have been explored countless times before. But when someone on a team brings up a commonly discussed topic and makes a valid point, perhaps a narrative can morph into a full-fledged cause.
“I’ve been saying it for eight years: spring training is ass-backs, we play night games (during the season) and we do everything (here) early in the morning,” said pitching coach Ethan Katz. “I’m here every day at 5, 6 o’clock (in the morning), it makes no difference to me. But if we’re talking about rest, recovery, and what we know, and we’re getting into a schedule driven by the night, why are we starting everything so early?
“It has to be higher in the spring,” says starter Dylan. “The coffee here isn’t particularly strong either, so half the time I don’t really feel like I’m getting high.”
As it turns out, Katz isn’t the first major league pitching coach in history, and a cursory internet search reveals it’s been nitpicked before. Just last spring, Nationals manager Dave Martinez pushed for more late-spring night games to prepare the Nationals for an opening slate with many late games. Do you remember Chase Headley? Well, this story, which acknowledges that the entire economic structure of spring training that appeals to holidaymakers is somehow built around day games, is old enough for him to be cited as an active player. This story of the 2017 Marlins, lamenting the rough transition from spring day games to their opening week of nightcaps, points out that local neighborhood ordinances around Florida stadiums are a barrier to a meaningful move.
“How does it help an athlete to wake up at 7 a.m. every day?” Katz said. “If they go into a season, hopefully they’ll sleep eight to 10 hours and wake up at 10, 11.”
“That’s not a stupid question,” says coach Pedro Grifol the athletedetailing that the team’s athletic performance department recently gave a presentation on rest and recovery needs. Grifol then followed up with a very thorough explanation as to why this isn’t the most pressing issue facing the White Sox this particular season. After two night games early in the regular season in Houston, the Sox will play six straight afternoon tournaments and three of their next five will be daytime affairs after that. Seven of their 13 home games in April will be played in the afternoon, a tried-and-true way to keep people from freezing to death in metal stands on cold Chicago April nights.
“You’re gradually working your way up to 7am,” said Grifol, who estimates that he regularly gets up at 4am for afternoon Cactus League games and that his players are likely to get up two hours later.
But even before Grifol’s declaration, this issue was a little on the verge of inciting a clubhouse rebellion. It was more of a silent acknowledgment of an odd detail amidst the deeply odd profession they’ve chosen for themselves.
“[My sleep schedule]is a bit messed up anyway because we have a newborn,” laughed infielder Jake Burger. “My thought process is we have to play night games all the time. But we have to be prepared for day-long games throughout the season. But I don’t know, it’s nice to start the day, come home and have the night to yourself.”
“I’d like to have more baseball routine,” Gavin Sheets offered. “Does it make a big difference when the season starts? No. I would like to play more night games than we do. I think we got all of spring training together. In a (normal) week we have five night games, so I’d love to do more of those, but I don’t think it makes a big difference overall.”
Andrew Benintendi raised the issue of weather. With all the focus on games involving a select number of players at camp, each is part of full-squad training. A high-day-game schedule means these backfield drills take place in the cooler morning hours, rather than in the Florida and Arizona afternoon sun. Perhaps adjusting to spring training comes gradually over the course of a long major league career in the same way players eventually settle into the rhythm of the season, which Cease has already noted, throwing a wrench into a normal sleep schedule.
Benintendi considers himself a natural early riser but says he’s regularly up until 2am after a mid-season night game. Elvis Andrus, entering his 15th major league season, is the opposite, lamenting the struggle of waking up early, the difficulty in getting his kids to sleep to accommodate his spring schedule and admitting he’s the The delicate balance he creates avoids the occasional menacing play on the spring night. And then, him quiet defends how spring is constructed.
“I think it would take the magic out of spring training,” Andrus said of switching to a night time schedule. “The fun part of spring training is that. You get to play early. The fans come early in the day, get a game tan, drink some alcohol. I love it. I love it the way it is.”
Given the notion that fans would enjoy alcohol at all times, Andrus leaned further into romance, postulating that a cold beer tastes better in warm sunshine. And there’s ultimately a romantic reason why an early schedule works.
“Family time,” said Benintendi. “You get your afternoons and your dinners and things like that.”
“These guys have families and I want them to spend time with them too,” Grifol said. “These guys don’t all just think about it The. Families are important. And that’s how I’ve always seen it and that’s how I’ll always see it, whether we win or lose a championship. Family is really important. Spring training is perfect for me.”
On a human level, that makes perfect sense, but is there enough medium-strength coffee to make up the difference in sleep when they need to shift?
“There’s probably so much adrenaline that it really doesn’t matter,” Cease said.
(Top photo by Andrew Benintendi: Joe Camporeale/USA Today)