Make no mistake, MLB spring training has hit the big time

by Peter Weinberger |

As a longtime Dodgers and Angels fan (mostly Dodgers), visiting my favorite teams during spring training has never been too difficult, given both have facilities in the Phoenix area for their yearly five week stay through March.

It’s also a unique time to watch players up close because smaller stadiums and practice fields are filled with major and minor leaguers competing for spots on the 25-player roster.

With less pressure to win every game, players are more generous with fans, and access is intimate. Prices are lower too, as fans come hours before the game to watch practices. You don’t even need a ticket until the game starts later in the afternoon.

Opening day is March 30, and what’s unique this year is Major League Baseball has implemented some major rule changes including impacting how players play and how the teams are managed. Major League Baseball has always been averse to change, even more so than other pro sports. Because of pressure to speed up play — the average game in 2022 lasted three hours and 19 minutes — MLB is making several key adjustments.

Here’s what my son Matt and I discovered when attending a Dodgers-Angels game at the Dodgers’ Camelback Ranch facilities in Glendale, Arizona.

Like almost every home game, it was a sellout at the 12,000-seat stadium. Because the Dodgers have the highest attendance in the majors almost every year, Saddleback Ranch’s success translates to higher, major league-style prices. That means a beef hot dog is $7.50, nachos are $12, soft drinks and water start at $6.50, and a beer is $14. Jerseys can cost over $100. Just like at Dodger Stadium!

Ticket prices vary, but on this day a seat on the grass beyond the outfield was $35. Tickets behind home plate started at $95. There are no vendors walking through the stands with peanuts or popcorn, in part because all stadium transactions are cashless. A large, 35-foot net covers all foul territory from foul pole to foul pole. That means the easiest way for a fan to catch a ball was on the outfield grass after a home run. We found this took away some excitement, almost like the game experience was more sanitized.

The rule changes were largely focused on saving time. Most worked very well, especially the pitch clock at 15-20 seconds between pitches. In the past, pitchers could take as long as they wanted, with some spending what seemed like an eternity between pitches, especially with men on base. Now if a pitcher was late, a called ball was assessed to the batter. Pitchers now can only attempt to pick off a runner twice, managers can only go to the mound twice per inning to talk a pitcher, and between inning time was limited to two minutes, 15 seconds. Even the bases are four inches larger, making stealing more common.

The biggest change however is limiting the dramatic fielder shifts on defense based on a hitter’s analytics. Last year there were even shifts where all the infielders moved to one side of the field, or even played in the outfield. Now infielders must stay on the infield dirt and cannot cross past second base before the pitch.

We found these changes really kept the game moving, and after a year of testing in the minor leagues, they have also proven to help reduce injuries.

For those of you who hate to see baseball change, I’d encourage any fan to see how these rules work before developing an opinion. Clocks are part of all major sports, including between shots in basketball and plays in football. Clearly there’s more urgency from baseball players and managers to avoid getting caught taking too much time.

We’ve heard many times that professional sports are a business. This has made an impact on MLB’s spring training. Gone are the days of few crowds and low prices as players go through mundane but important work during training. Everything is fenced off with officials guarding certain areas like Fort Knox. Most interactions with players are watching them walk past fans on the way to the stadium. Security has become a priority.

Even with all these changes, there’s nothing like watching a game in warm, sunny weather, with a hot dog and drink in your hand. Just remember to take your credit card. The Dodgers don’t accept cash.


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