How Spring Training Works

The Function of Spring Training

Philadelphia Phillies' Michael Young signs autographs during a workout before a spring training game in Clearwater, Fla.
Philadelphia Phillies' Michael Young signs autographs during a workout before a spring training game in Clearwater, Fla.
© STEVE NESIUS/Reuters/Corbis

Baseball in the late 19th century was predominately a northern sport with teams clustered in states like New York, Massachusetts, Illinois and Pennsylvania. Most major leaguers were part-time athletes who returned to their day jobs in the offseason. When the new season approached, coaches would train players indoors until the practice fields thawed out.

The Chicago White Stockings and the Cincinnati Red Stockings were the first teams to travel south to New Orleans for spring training camps in 1870 [source: SpringTrainingOnline]. In 1888, the Washington Capitals ran a four-week camp in Jacksonville, Fla., and more teams soon set out for sunnier pastures, making Florida, and eventually Arizona, the premier spring training destinations of the 20th century.

Today, spring training still serves the purpose of getting players into game condition, both physically and mentally. It isn't all just stretching sessions and working on their tans. Both veterans and young hopefuls run intensive conditioning drills and practice tricky scenarios like rundowns, bunts and cutoff plays [source: Kurkjian].

But spring training also serves as a tryout for unproven players. By February, most teams have filled their 25-man roster, but there are still a few spots up for grabs [source: Johns]. Major League Baseball has an extensive Minor League or "farm" system to develop new talent. Some of the top-performing minor leaguers will be called to spring training as "off-roster invitees." If they play well, they could earn a spot in the big leagues. The Minor League has its own shorter spring training in March [source: Cooper].

Arguably the most convincing reason for the existence of spring training is its drawing power as a tourist attraction. Today, spring training is evenly split between the Grapefruit League of Florida and the Cactus League of Arizona with 15 teams each. In 2013, more than 1.6 million fans attended spring training games in Florida for an estimated $753 million boost to the state's economy [source: Florida Grapefruit League]. In 2012, Arizona's Cactus League generated more than $422 million with 58 percent of tickets purchased by out-of-staters [source: FMR Associates]. Spring training baseball is big business for hotels, resorts, restaurants, shops and golf courses in these sun-soaked cities.

Baseball fans love spring training because it's Major League Baseball with a small-town feel. The stadiums are smaller, the ticket prices are cheaper and the players are more accessible for autographs and even conversation. The formality of the game is replaced by a boyish exuberance for the return of an American pastime. Actor Billy Crystal, at age 59, went to bat for the Yankees during a spring training game, and some players ride home from games on their bicycles in full uniform, with their gloves dangling from the handlebars like school kids [source: Kurkjian].

So where can you watch your favorite team up close and personal in spring training?