Spring Training Roster Rules

I learned something new today.  Major League Baseball has roster rules for teams traveling to spring training games. Get outa here!

Teams tend to let their veterans stay home rather than go on bus trips. MLB in theory requires that at least four players be plausible starters. Teams tend to ignore this rule, and reportedly some are being fined, though it isn’t clear to me if the fines are large enough for the teams to care.

Modern spring training involves pretty significant money. Last year the average attendance was 8,388, all paying to get in the gate and then buying their hot dogs and beer. I find this astonishing. My favorite number is for the Tampa Rays, who average 5,360 per game. Compare this with their regular season average of 15,322.  Or, for that matter, the fact that the Cubs average, at 14,549, nearly as many fans at their meaningless spring training games as the Rays do in the regular season.

The purpose of the rule is so that fans will see legitimate big leaguers rather than a collection of scrubs. This brings us to one of the fascinating aspects of baseball culture. Fans happily schlep a thousand miles to see meaningless pre-season games. Compare this with the NFL, with the perennial complaint of season ticket holders that those meaningless pre-season games are mandatory parts of the package.

It would be easy–and fun!–to turn this into a “baseball rules, football drools” bit, but in all honesty I have to figure that a lot of the attraction of spring training is the excuse to take a trip to a warmer clime. I get that. Football preseason games begin in August, before the worst of the summer heat and humidity has worn off.

Even so, I think this illustrates some of the differences between baseball and football. You don’t go to a football game to see a football game. If you want to see what is happening on the field, you will do far better to stay home and watch it on TV. You attend a football game for the group experience. That is a hard sell for a meaningless game.

Spring training is different. Even if you don’t care about the game you can enjoy the experience of sitting in the stands on a spring day, with the game providing a pleasant background. Modern minor league baseball is predicated on this business model, since not even twelve year old boys live and die by the fortunes of the Lansing Lugnuts. Or, if you want to see the up-and-coming youngsters, you can actually see what they do, and form your meaningless small-sample opinions accordingly.

Which brings us around to the question of do the fans actually care whether they are seeing starters in those games? Heck if I know. But it seems odd that they would. They will have plenty of opportunity to see those guys once the season starts. Seeing the prospects is the rarer opportunity for the serious fan, while the people there to sit in the sun won’t care either way. Anyway, the serious fan will attend his own team’s home spring training games, where his team’s starters will get more game time. This leaves us with a complaint that the game is noncompetitive, what with the home team’s starters facing the visitor’s scrubs. Are we seriously suggesting that fans are unhappy if their team wins too easily?

I could be wrong, but I think MLB has gone down a blind alley here. I would like to know: how large are those fines?

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Richard Hershberger is a paralegal working in Maryland. When he isn't doing whatever it is that paralegals do, or taking his daughters to Girl Scouts, he is dedicated to the collection and analysis of useless and unremunerative information.

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12 thoughts on “Spring Training Roster Rules

  1. I’ve not heard of this rule before, and find it odd that it is directed towards road trips. I would assume that a team’s fans, excited to see its star, would naturally go to that team’s home field. I don’t know how many teams do this, but the Cardinals invite back many former fan-favorites and Hall-of-Famers to coach and assist during Spring Training. They don’t have anybody on the roster that really compares with the opportunity to see Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Ozzy Smith, or Bruce Sutter. I suppose there is the McCutchen factor, that a fan will favor a game in which his team is playing the Pirates for a chance to see a player that is widely admired and probably wouldn’t be a jerk when you ask him to sign something. I don’t think there are that many players. Moreso than football, baseball with its regional TV networks, seems to cater and support the local team.

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    • Yeah, this is more or less my understanding of the spring training roster rule. It’s fun and exciting to go see Real Big Leaguers ™ up close and personal. You can do that, for a reasonable price, in the spring leagues. That’s one of the reasons to go.

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      • Can you? Spring training tickets run about $15 to $30. I just checked, and find that I could buy a ticket to see the Yankees play in Baltimore on, picking a date at random, May 3, getting a field level box seat directly across from first or third, for $66. And yes, I really can buy that ticket. There are seats available as I write, not all bought up by some fancy downtown law firm to shmooze clients. (First known occurrence of a businessman taking another businessman to a baseball game to shmooze him: 1858. Seriously. But I digress.) Take into account travel and lodging expenses of shlepping out to Florida or Arizona and that Camden Yard ticket is a whole lot cheaper.

        People tend to overestimate how expensive it is to attend baseball games. This is because of the constant complaining about high prices (which dates to 1866, by the way, when they started charging 25 cents) and the evergreen “news” pieces estimating how much it costs to take a family of four that doesn’t have the sense to eat dinner beforehand, and which inexplicably needs multiple programs. My favored seats in Camden Yards are at the front of the upper deck directly behind home plate. (Bring your glove: a surprising number of foul pop-ups get up there.) (I have had multiple persons come back and thank me, since these are actually really good seats. Maybe I should stop letting people in on my little secret.) The price varies depending on opponent and day of the week, but $24 is typical. Eat beforehand, and manage to go three hours without drinking beer, and there is no need to take out a second mortgage.

        This all supports my suspicion that the real motive is to get away from the lousy weather wherever it is you are, and sit outside in the sun. Do Padres and Angels fans make the trip? This would be evidence contradicting my thesis.

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        • I certainly think that seeing a Spring-training game is part of a larger trip. But I remember that the Cubs were talking about leaving Arizona for Florida, and they were getting competing offers, and ended up staying in Mesa because the city built them a huge complex and an opportunity for the team to build an adjoining resort and entertainment district. Either the Cubs were really considering a move to Florida, to be ostensibly closer and more convenient for its fan-base, or they were playing the two locations off against each other. But they are all acting like Spring-training draws tourists, or that part of the purpose of Spring-training is to draw fans.

          Cubs may be a little different. I’m told the new facilities are much nicer and convenient than Wrigley Field. (There are field-level infield seats available at Wrigley during the week of May 3, but not the weekend).

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        • I know Dodgers fans who make the trip, and a few die-hards who did it back when they played in Florida. I’ve not made the trip myself.

          But I will admit that I’m thinking about the ballparks in Los Angeles and San Francisco when I think about what it costs to get really good seats. $100+ per ticket for in-the-sun, behind-the-net or above-the-dugout seats at Dodger Stadium. When I’ve looked into getting tickets while traveling to San Francisco I’ve seen similar prices. But perhaps Camden Yards or New Comiskey Park are different stories and I admit my ignorance.

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  2. Which brings us around to the question of do the fans actually care whether they are seeing starters in those games? Heck if I know. But it seems odd that they would. They will have plenty of opportunity to see those guys once the season starts. Seeing the prospects is the rarer opportunity for the serious fan, while the people there to sit in the sun won’t care either way.

    But it’s hard to get a handle on a prospect if he’s facing scrubs. If your young hitter is raking against Joe Cuppacoffee, big deal, but if he’s raking against Kershaw, wow!

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    • This is a fair point, but not the stated reason for the rule. It also has the problem that even if Kershaw is pitching, he isn’t necessarily pitching like he would in the regular season. He might be working on a new pitch, and continuing to throw it even though those rookies are pounding it.

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    • I guess that points to the question of what do the fans MLB is catering to with this rule want. I’ve watched some spring-training games on TV, and this is what I look for:

      1. This year’s facial hair. Always a source of amusement and delight.
      2. Player reactions to what they’ve done. Does the fielder laugh-off a miscue like he know what he did wrong? Does the batter slam down his bat in self-disgust? I know a lot of these guys are working on “things,” is Kershaw working on a cutter, and just throw four in a row? Did Kershaw grimace when it was hit out of the park, or did he shout an obscenity into his glove?
      3. What do the new guys look like. What are my first impressions.
      4. Manager decisions. Are any players fielding different positions this Spring? Are there a lot of bunts or stolen basis attempted? Usually means almost nothing for the regular season though.

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  3. My favorite number is for the Tampa Rays, who average 5,360 per game. Compare this with their regular season average of 15,322.

    Consider the cost differential relative to the improvement in the quality of play and this isn’t surprising.

    I was probably one of the few people in the Denver area that was sorry to see MLB arrive in the 1990s, because it cost us AAA baseball. Even at triple the prices, you got worse seats, and advance planning was required. In some ways, a less entertaining game as well. AAA has the advantage that many of the players are Major League caliber at the plate, but the pitchers less so. Better pace as well, as the AAA umpires don’t tolerate the kind of stalling that’s too common in the bigs, and there’s no need to create gaps for TV commercials.

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    • Consider the cost differential relative to the improvement in the quality of play and this isn’t surprising

      Or, in the alternative, those spectators aren’t Rays fans, but are fans of the visiting, more popular club whose tickets are harder to get. These are fans where the stated reason for the roster rule actually makes sense.

      I was probably one of the few people in the Denver area that was sorry to see MLB arrive in the 1990s, because it cost us AAA baseball.

      I love minor league baseball. I think that AA is the best level. AAA players can be in something of a holding pattern. The team ends up being simply the reserve for the big club, with the games played to maintain skills. At AA the level of play is good. Everyone knows where they are supposed to throw the ball, and mostly can do it. But they still are proving themselves and play like it. This is a prolix way of saying “Run out the damned grounder, if you want to make it to the bigs!”

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  4. Price is a huge factor with the NFL preseason games. As I understand, these tickets cost the same as regular season. Then you have parking and all the other costs.

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