The NFL preseason is winding down. The NHL preseason begins in three weeks, the NBA preseason in a little more than a month. Even Major League Baseball spring training is in the news as everyone tries to determine whether Buster Posey’s hip will be mended by the time mitts start popping in 2019.
It’s an appropriate time to compare the preseason action of the various pro sports leagues. Or even rank them:
Spring training isn’t Baseball Lite or a prologue to the real game. It’s an entity unto itself, and not necessarily an inferior one. It is a more casual, more intimate, more nostalgic version of the MLB season to follow, and it is strangely beautiful.
Yes, split squads are weird, and as in other sports you are, in part, watching players who won’t figure largely in the team’s plans that season. But baseball separates itself with an emphasis on individuality. You can take a pitcher like Mike Fiers, send him from Detroit to Oakland in August, plug him into his new surroundings, and it’s like the only thing that has changed is the uniform. He’s the same Mike Fiers.
Likewise, when you’re watching Madison Bumgarner or Matt Chapman in the spring, they are mostly their real selves. You know they might be working on a certain pitch or fiddling with the batting stance. Their statistics don’t mean much. But they aren’t as reliant on scheme or the play of teammates as basketball and football players are. March Bumgarner doesn’t look all that different from August Bumgarner.
More than that, the format of spring training is a delight. Preseason ball in a regular-season stadium feels bush league. MLB avoids the hollowness by moving everything off-site and clustering professional clubs like Little League teams.
It’s brilliant. A little baseball vacation in Phoenix for chilled-to-the-bone Brewers fans? Yes, please! And the baseball parks of Arizona and Florida aren’t cheaper, smaller versions of MLB parks. They are little pieces of Americana with old-fashioned advertisements on the outfield wall and fans close enough to the action (and modest enough in number) that Bryce Harper can hear their taunts.
MLB’s opening day brings some jitters to die-hard baseball fans. But when was the last time you heard someone complaining that spring training was dragging on forever?
Full disclosure: I’ve never seen an NHL preseason game. Sorry. But it has to be better than…
The NBA tries to have it both ways, with Summer League games featuring young, developing players and preseason games with full squads. The full package is pretty meh.
Summer League has its moments, especially when the games move to Las Vegas. But you have to be a real basketball addict to get hyped about Warriors games in which the standout players are Marcus Derrickson and J.P. Tokoto. It’s strictly for wonks.
The true NBA preseason isn’t dreadful. Basketball doesn’t have the same plug-and-play, every-man-for-himself quality as baseball, but individuals do stand out as they show off their skills. And the big names play in the first half of October. Stephen Curry averaged 24 minutes in four preseason games last year; Kevin Durant averaged 19. If you plunk down money for an NBA preseason game, you will see the stars doing their thing.