In the NHL, NBA, and NFL, preseason games are viewed as an obligation. Major League Baseball has figured out a way to turn Spring Training into a destination. How? One word. Approachability.
They say the best ability is availability. After spending the last week taking in Spring Training here in Arizona, I beg to differ. Major League Baseball has figured out a formula to get fans not only to attend preseason games, but to look forward to them 11 months a year. There are a lot of factors that contribute to that, but it all comes down to one simple fact. Availability is nice, but the vest ability, one that Major League Baseball has perfected during the spring, is approachability.
If I’ve learned one thing this week, it’s that people love Spring Training. I wrote on this earlier in the week, when I had a chance to interview some of the fans out here, so I won’t wax poetic about the secondary elements that make Spring Training so great. Instead, I believe I have found the central idea behind those elements – the hope of a new year, and the way Spring Training has marketed itself as a destination as much as a preseason; approachability.
Think about it; when was the last time you were excited about a preseason NFL game? How about the NHL, or NBA? Chances are, you’ve had season-ticket holders try to sell the very preseason tickets they themselves are forced to purchase. Nobody wants to go to preseason games.
I’ve been trying to figure out why that is. At first, I thought the weather was the easiest answer; people just want to go where it’s warm, and the fact that there’s a baseball game is an added bonus. While I’m sure that has a lot to do with it, especially while it’s still cold in much of the country, that isn’t it. After all, the NFL preseason takes place in the end of the summer, and there isn’t near the same amount of excitement.
Then I figured, it has to be the prices. Tickets are several times cheaper for these games than for the regular season. Again, though, that’s true of all preseasons to some degree. People aren’t making several-thousand-mile treks to go see preseason NBA games. It just isn’t happening.
Maybe it’s the convenience, then. With half of Major League Baseball here in Arizona and the other half in Florida, and many of the teams share parks, giving you 15 teams all within an hour or so of each other. Personally, I think this could be the what separates Spring Training from other preseasons, but it’s all part of a broader picture; approachability.
There is no better word for it. Spring Training makes everything feel like home, and everyone here treats you as such. On game days, every stadium is teeming with people working to sell and scan tickets, direct you around the park, and help you find your way around, whether it be finding your parking spot before the game or your seat during it. I’ve probably interacted with a couple dozen of them over the last week, and every last one has greeted me with a smile, told me to enjoy the game, and generally been welcoming. I’ve been offered a golf cart ride to the other side of the stadium. I was given a program for free because I didn’t have the one dollar usually needed to buy one. I even spent fifteen minutes talking to one gentleman wax poetic about meeting Tony Gwynn a few years back. Everyone is welcoming, everyone is beyond kind; everyone is approachable – and it doesn’t stop with stadium staff.
The players themselves are approachable, and this is where Spring Training earns its reputation as the country’s best preseason. Before the games and during between-game workouts, players take batting practice and shag fly balls no more than ten feet from you. It’s likely the closest most fans will ever get to their idols. Before Wednesday night’s Padres-Dodgers game, several players from both teams spent 10-15 minutes apiece signing autographs for younger fans. I don’t just mean the happy-to-be-there youngsters, either. Seasoned vets like Jimmy Rollins and Howie Kendrick both signed for kids standing near the third-base dugout, only minutes before the game was set to start.
Finally, the game itself is approachable. For the price of a large beer at a Major League park, you can grab a seat in the first row behind the dugout. Buy a lawn seat and you can have a mid-afternoon picnic while taking in the game. As an added bonus, you can freely walk around the stadium; the only time I was stopped was when another fan asked if I could take a picture for her. The normally tight security and stingy ticket checkers of the regular season simply don’t exist here. Hell, you can walk out of the stadium, grab something from your car, and walk back in; just make sure you get your hand stamped.
Every sport has its preseason. Only one is a destination. The weather helps, as do the prices and the locality of so many teams. But what makes Spring Training special, and what separates it from the preseasons of the other major sports, is its approachability. Everyone, from the fans to the stadium staff to the players makes a point to be friendly and pay back the fans that, in all essence, pay their salaries. Just the other night, a family seated near me left for a few innings. When they came back, they explained they had gone to sit behind home plate, but realized they were in someone’s seats when he kindly came over and informed them. “It was Tommy Lasorda,” they told me. “He let us stay until the end of the inning, though.” If that’s not what makes Spring Training special, I don’t know what is.