So I was at the – wait, guess – yep, I was at the boosktore this afternoon, where I found an interesting book called “Under the March Sun” by Charles Fountain. It's a well-written book about the history and traditions surrounding spring training baseball. Naturally, I had to check out the first couple of chapters because 1. I love baseball and, 2. To improve upon my MLS South idea.
It turns out that one of the godfathers of spring training was a guy named Al Lang, a Laundromat owner in Pittsburgh who had to move to the Sunshine State in order to improve his health in 1910. Something about the air in Steel City just wasn’t, um, clean. I know, hard to believe.
Now, it turned out that Lang, a lifelong fan of his native Pirates, wanted to bring baseball to his new home in St. Petersburg. Lang was an affable man who made many friends wherever he went. Some of those friends happened to be in the Pirates organization, the first club he tried to attract to sunny St. Pete for the spring. They declined. Something about there being distractions – like beaches and bars, I guess.
But eventually, Lang found himself as the town’s mayor for four years, and was able to land some pretty big fishes. First, the Boston Braves came down in the 1920s. Then, two of the biggest teams in baseball promised to make the newly-designated Sunshine City their spring home: the St. Louis Cardinals and Babe Ruth’s New York Yankees.
Lang loved his baseball. He tried everything he could to wean the ballclubs to make St. Pete their home away from home. He paid the travel expenses of the entire team AND the writers. In his mind, any dateline with “ST. PETERSBURGH, Fla.” was free publicity for his beloved town. Many other teams followed the Braves, Cards and Yanks to Florida. At one point, 14 of the 16 the league’s clubs camped in Florida. And Al Lang is perhaps the man most responsible for the success of springtime ball in on the peninsula.
Similarly, I believe the same endeavor taken by Lang nearly 100 years ago could be applied to MLS. Lang was a visionary who saw baseball as a means to attract tourists to St. Pete, and by extension, Florida. He paid for everything knowing that the rewards could be reaped. When people talked about the Yankees – Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle – during March, they also mentioned St. Pete. And the people came. People from all over the country came to St. Pete for one reason: baseball.
There’s no doubt in my mind this can be applied to MLS. In fact, the pitches already exist where a club could camp down there right now. U.S. Soccer has its IMG Training Academy in Bradenton – there’s one locale already. You probably fit two or three MLS clubs at the facility. There’s the Miami FC facilities. There’s also boatload of state universities where clubs could train on the school’s soccer pitches.
It just takes some initiative. It takes someone recognizing the potential rewards of hosting an MLS club during the spring. The pros interact with the college or youth teams at IMG. In turn, the pros are given soccer-spec facilities, a much smoother training and preseason schedule, and plenty of outdoor training.
So how long will it take for MLS to recognize the benefits of a common spring destination for its clubs?
Speaking of spring destinations, the Revolution kick off the first of three (...!) preseason matches tonight at Nelson Field in Austin, Texas. You may remember Austin as being the home city for one of the more interesting seasons of The Real World. I know this because I still have a crush on Johanna.
But anyway, tonight’s match will likely involve the obligatory mix of veterans and rookies for both halves. Perhaps some tactical tinkering. And probably alot of miscommunication, which is to be expected in any club's first match of the spring. Overall, you really can’t make much of a club’s performance in its first (or second) preseason match.
So what can we gain from tonight’s match? Unfortunately, the match won’t be broadcast via radio. Or the telly. Maybe military spy satellites. Instead, it will be “covered” exclusively vua the Official Revolution Blog, which is too often the only source of information during the club’s ongoing preseason adventures.
And I have no real problem with that. Some info is better than no info. It’s actually one of the very few outlets where I can stay up to date on the local XI. The only thing is, it’s written by the club’s communications department. So, of course, it’s accurate. But it’s also biased. We’ll know who did well. We’ll know who surprised (in a good way). We'll know who deserved a gold star on the soccer skills chart.
But what we won’t know is who looked out of shape, lethargic, or just plain pathetic. We won’t know who isn’t fitting in, or if the Aztex are having their way with a top-flight team. And its occasions like these where the independent media perspective would come in pretty darn handy.*
(*I’d like to think that my buddy Frank Dell’Apa is down there, but as far as I know, his primary responsibilities are keeping him in Beantown with the Celtics and their newest headache Stephon Marbury. That’s a darn shame – Frank’s The Don of soccer journalism here in New England.)
And I’ll tell you, as a journalist myself, if my ticket, accommodations and my wad of ones were taken care of, I’d give it to you straight up. I’d give you the clean and the dirty. Who looked good and who got pwned. But most importantly, I’d provide a completely unbiased perspective, which is exactly what’s been missing for much of the preseason.