Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Under the March Sun by Charles Fountain

Why I Read It: A baseball fan through and through, major league spring training is something I've never experienced.

Summary: A history of the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues, focusing mostly on the musical chairs game at play among the many cities hosting and hoping to host big league clubs.

My Thoughts: When I was a kid, Winter Haven was the byline. The Red Sox trained in Winter Haven. Always had, always would. I had no understanding that spring training did not come with the advent of baseball. It seems so obvious; they must have trained somewhere warm before the season started, even the old Boston Beaneaters. Yet, at some point in my life, they moved to Fort Myers. It was the result of negotiations regarding the needs of a club and the needs of a community, of the optimum number of practice fields and fan accessibility. It was part of the regular shuffling from city to city, from state to state, through time. But it had major economic impacts on Winter Haven. There are only so many major league teams to go around. Without the best package to offer, a community may find itself without one for a year, and a facility in waiting is a facility stagnating.

And yet, from Boston, when I found out the Red Sox moved, I reacted like someone who had no idea of any of the above. "Huh, they moved." And I went on my merry way.

Politics and economics both play major roles in the spring training game. From the beginning, pioneers in Florida saw spring training as their economic salvation. Six weeks of bylines in major northern cities were seen as untouchable marketing opportunities for tourism boards. Now, a century on, it's all a multi-million dollar affair. It's Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Boardwalk and Baseball in Haines City. It's the celebration of baseball that sometimes goes too far to be sustainable. It's about understanding the fan experience as a part of the grander scheme, but that the bottom line still trumps everything.

It's also the competition between cities in Florida, and between Florida and Arizona. And it's the story of the briefly considered Oasis League in Las Vegas. The sting of gambling kept the sport away, but now that the NHL has broken down that barrier, with a new team in the desert, has the game changed? The author also deals with the trials of racial integration. Florida is the Deep South, and as such, spring training was a battleground in the integration war.

To keep it all straight, the author includes a thorough appendix, by team, of the spring training locations of the past 120 years. After reading this book, I'll never give the news of a move a "Huh" again.

Finally, let me just say how fun it is to read all the way through a book, and have the author sign off the acknowledgments from a spot fifteen minutes from your house. It brings the whole reading experience full circle, and makes one feel like there is somehow magic nearby.

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