I've never had a child, but I'm guessing that, for a lot of people, it's never better than when the child's born. When a child is first born, it has all the potential in the world. It might not actually have all the potential in the world, but as far as the parents are concerned it sure as hell does. From then on, most children only underachieve, on into adulthood. They fail to hit their potential, or maybe they never had much potential in the first place. Some children reach high ceilings, but they're few and far between.
For baseball fans, spring training is the birth of a new season. It all works out in a very similar way. At the start of spring training, and as the exhibition schedule plays out, fans of every team get excited. They see the potential in their squad - potential, perhaps, that others don't. As the season begins, people might daydream about unreasonable things they don't think are unreasonable. Then, inevitably, as the season progresses, some teams are great and other teams aren't, and dreams are dashed without mercy. In the end, few are left feeling fulfilled.
It might seem crazy that fans of every team get their hopes up when spring training rolls around. I mean, there are some teams that are just doomed, right? Some teams that obviously aren't going to do anything. But think about this like childbirth, again. A child is a blend of the parents. If the parents are mediocre people, and they know they're mediocre people, they're probably going to have a mediocre baby. But there's always that chance that the child wins the genetic lottery and turns into something greater than the expected sum of its parts. Mediocre people have produced brilliant children before.
Let's talk about projected standings. These are from the beginning of February, so not a lot has changed. You see teams like the Yankees and the Tigers and the Phillies with high playoff odds. You see teams like the Orioles and the Twins and the Astros with low playoff odds. But these teams with low playoff odds still have playoff odds, because there exist certain unlikely but possible sequences of events that would allow them to reach the playoffs. There are good bets and there are long shots, but there are no no-shots. In spring training, there's always the fantasy.
It's so important for baseball fans to have an opportunity to get their hopes up, too. I mean, we're in this because we want our teams to win. If we were convinced that our teams wouldn't win, why would we bother? We delude ourselves in March to prepare for the marathon, and then by the time we realize it was all a delusion, it's June or July. "I've already gotten this far," you think, "so I might as well follow the rest."
People can get whipped into a frenzy in spring training, and I think people are supposed to get whipped into a frenzy in spring training. It's an integral part of the experience. You lap up the fluff, and you imagine good players staying good and other players becoming good. You can envision the breaks, and what if your team gets the breaks? Individually, they're not all that insane.
March is supposed to be the one month when everybody has a chance. Come April, it's over. Come May, it's more over. But in March, everybody's involved, and everybody's excited. Baseball's back! Just imagine how far this baseball can take us!
Unfortunately, there's a thing about spring training -- sometimes it brings the reality checks we'd all prefer to leave to the season. We've seen a small spate of them around the league recently, and I'll remind you that today is the second day of March.
Thursday, it was reported that Grady Sizemore had back surgery and would miss at least eight to 12 weeks. Everybody already knew that Sizemore was a question mark, but that's a potentially significant blow.
Wednesday, it was reported that Franklin Gutierrez had a partially torn pectoral muscle and would miss several weeks of action. Optimism around Gutierrez had been overflowing in the weeks leading up, but now his immediate future is unclear.
The Pittsburgh Pirates acquired A.J. Burnett because they figured he had the stuff to be a big success in the National League. Burnett sustained an orbital fracture while bunting and will undergo surgery, and his timetable's unknown.
And Scott Sizemore -- the other Sizemore -- tore his ACL. A disappointment in Detroit, Sizemore went to Oakland and started hitting. He was to be the starting third baseman for the A's. Now he's out for the year, and third is hardly a position of organizational depth.
These are four pretty significant injuries, and they're injuries to four talented players on similar teams. The Indians, the Mariners, the Pirates, the A's -- in 2012, they're all long shots. Their combined playoff odds based on those projected standings above are 48.1 percent. It's not quite fair to include the Indians with the others, since they're in a much better position, but they're not the Tigers. And there'll be a hell of a lot of competition for the wild cards.
Mathematically, none of these injuries is devastating. If you have even a passing familiarity with WAR, you know that the best players in baseball are worth eight or nine or ten wins above a replacement player in a season, and none of those players above are among the best players. Maybe the Indians project one or two wins worse without Sizemore. Maybe it's a game or two for the Mariners, Pirates, and A's. Nobody just lost Roy Halladay or Joey Votto.
But people don't always think mathematically, and there's a psychological component here that can't be ignored. Indians fans, Mariners fans, Pirates fans, A's fans -- almost all of them have been dreaming. It's spring training, you see. And I can speak from experience, since as you know by now I follow the M's. News of the extent of Gutierrez's injury came as an unwelcome reality check. It was a splash of cold water. It was a morning shower where the hot water wasn't working. I had allowed myself to become unreasonably enthusiastic. Then Gutierrez got hurt and I was reminded that baseball can be cruel.
These early spring injuries can be emotionally destructive. If you're a Mariners fan, you're thinking "Oh right, baseball." If you're a Pirates fan, you're thinking "Oh right, baseball." You might've tried to trick yourself, but baseball wouldn't be defied. Baseball can be a real bitch, and baseball can choose a bad time to remind you who's boss.
Spring training is the one month for everyone to have faith -- the faith that's necessary in order to remain loyal. Everybody knows that their faith will be tested down the line, but no one's prepared for their faith to be tested in February or March. These early injuries can jeopardize if not outright destroy some of the only positive feelings a team's fans might feel in a year.
Every baseball fan should be entitled to a month of irrational positivity. It's a shame when baseball rears its ugly head before anyone's ready. Courageous fans of the teams listed above might find a way to bounce back -- it's still early March, after all -- but they've already been dealt a psychological blow, and the seed of doubt has been planted. It is a hardy seed.