It’s no secret how I’m able to survive the long, cold winters we experience here in Chicago. My survival technique is pretty simple, actually, and it can work for anybody, even you. Just board a plane (or if need be, hop in a car) and head south to spend some quality time taking in a little spring training baseball. For me, three to four sunshine filled weeks spent in either Florida or Arizona covering the boys of summer as they prepare for the upcoming season is all it takes to cure any sized case of the wintertime blues.
My arrival this week in Glendale Arizona will kick off spring training number twenty seven. Wow, time flies! Over the past twenty seven years I’ve had the good fortune to work for a variety of clients, ranging from the Chicago White Sox to numerous trading card companies, licensees and even now defunct monthly sports magazines such as Sport and Inside Sports. Actually there were a few years where I covered both the Grapefruit and Cactus League, traveling between Florida and Arizona in an attempt to do whatever it takes in order to maximize my exposure to late winter baseball!
The White Sox trained in Sarasota Florida for many years, so the Grapefruit League became a natural spring destination for me during the 1980’s and 90’s. Payne Park, the White Sox spring training home from 1960 to 1988, was, how shall I say this, unique. It was like going to the neighborhood ballpark down the street. Chicken wire and wood bleachers, quaint and intimate. A step back in time.
Memories from Sarasota include actually helping shuttle players in my car between the practice diamonds across town back to Payne Park. I could get them back faster than the team bus could. I recall receiving more that a few odd looks while transporting Britt Burns back to the ballpark, dressed in full game uniform and sitting in the passenger seat. Watching the players run through a mob of fans as they made their way from the clubhouse to the dugout was always interesting as well. No tunnel or fenced in walkway here. Players commingled with the fans out of necessity. This made Payne Park a mecca for autograph freaks and conversely a pain in the you know what for the players.
Whether it’s watching Hall of Famer Al Kaline working with outfielders in Lakeland Florida or current White Sox third base coach Jeff Cox running batters through bunting drills, spring training is a great time to take in all things baseball. Fans have unprecedented access to the players. Everyone comes to camp with a fresh outlook on the season. Take a deep breath. Smell the pine tar, listen to the constant crack of the bat. Isn’t it wonderful? Ah, the joys of spring. More accurately, the joys of spring training!
Spring training is a place where baseball gets back to the basics. Drills, drills, drills. Pitchers working on covering bunts, catchers handling rundowns, outfielders working on relay throws, the list goes on. Everyone gets reacquainted with the little things that makes the game of baseball great. Things that usually add up to making the difference between being a division champion or an also ran.
For many years, I spent the first week of spring training working for baseball card companies such as Fleer, Score, Pinnacle and Donruss. Remember them? I call that time period the golden days since there were so many clients to work for. Times sure change. Now, with only Topps left in the baseball card market, photo days are no longer filled with photographers representing card companies. I have many wonderful memories of those early morning shoots, recalling the angst of trying to make different pictures while working at the speed of light, lucky to have 30 seconds or less with each player. It was easy to go brain dead. I mean, how many ways can you pose a player with a bat, right? Sometimes, I got lucky. If I knew the player, I could stretch the limit. Different usually meant usage when it came to baseball cards.
Now I spend that first week shooting headshots for Major League Baseball. Photo day is a day set aside at every camp for players and staff to have their standard publicity headshots taken. These shots are used for media guides, network television (I’m sure you’ve always wondered where those headshots on Sportscenter and The MLB Network came from, didn’t you?), video games, you name it. It’s a day that moves at an insane pace as I mentioned, where 60 headshots can taken in a hour time or less. With start times usually scheduled for 7 am, it’s a week to avoid staying out late, at least for me! But it’s a fun week because for me it signals the official start of the baseball season.
One photo day in particular was quite memorable for me, that being during the spring of 1994. The White Sox had invited a rookie to camp who also happened to be an NBA player. Not just any NBA player, THE NBA player. Michael Jordan. Needless to say, spring training that year was quite different than any I have experienced, before or since. The Ed Smith complex was swarming with media. Everyone wanted a glimpse of or word with #23, so I decided to immerse myself within the hoopla. A few NBA photographers had tipped me off that Michael routinely asked each photographer prior to a photo shoot the following question. “Are you a professional photographer”? Of course, the photographer would answer “yes”, to which Michael would reply “Then you only need to take one shot”. Armed with this knowledge, I developed a plan to have a little fun with Michael.
As sure as the day is long, when Michael sat down for his publicity headshot he popped the question. “I have a question for you.” I replied, “Aren’t you a rookie, and shouldn’t I be asking you the questions?” He cracked up and conceded there was some truth to that, but made mention that next year would be different. I agreed, squeezing in a mention that “we’ll worry about next year next year! A lasting spring training memory was made while working with one of the greatest athletes of all time. Thanks, Michael!
Spring training is the perfect time for teams to film commercials or promotional spots featuring their players. Once the regular season starts, player availability becomes very limited so spring training is the perfect time to get these projects done. Ah, spring!
Better than normal access is a perk while covering spring training baseball. Down in Port Charlotte for example, photographers had incredible access to the Texas Rangers bullpen. What better place to make a picture of Hall of Fame fireballer Nolan Ryan warming up than while actually standing inside the bullpen itself? For many years, most teams wore their regular season uniform during spring, so it was also a great time to make salable images that would maintain a long shelf life, as viewed from a stock photography perspective.
If attention was paid to maintaining a clean background, it would be difficult to tell if the shot was made in spring training or during the regular season since the players were wearing their regular season uniform. Now, it’s extremely difficult to get any sort of lifespan out of an image made during spring with all the special caps, batting practice tops and such being worn today. Very few teams wear their regular season uniforms during spring. Another one of the things I miss from shooting during the good ol’ days.
If you’ve never been to spring training, why not make this year THE year to take in a few days, or better still, a few weeks of baseball fun in the sun!
If you’ve already been or are planning to to go, you know what I’m talking about. Attending spring training, whether working or as a fan, can’t be beat.
See you there!