Kyle Farnsworth has been invited to Spring Training. Daisuke Matsuzaka has been invited to Spring Training. Taylor Teagarden conjures images of an idyllic spot where those who sew for a living might seek a civilized respite from the drudgery of cuffing trousers, but he’s actually a catcher and he, too, has been invited to Spring Training. So has Matt Clark, a perfectly random pair of first names that apparently amounts to a longtime minor league first baseman who was something of if not all the rage in Japan (if not Genoa City).
They may or may not be part of your 2014 New York Mets when things begin to fully matter, but for at least a spell in February and March, they’ll definitely enter our thoughts, for each of them has been invited to Spring Training.
“Invited to Spring Training” is one of those phrases that rolls off of tongues and into ears this time of year. It sounds so much better than “wintry mix,” for example. But what does it mean to be invited to Spring Training? Literally?
I get the basics. No more than 40 men can be on a 40-man roster, thus the category known as Non-Roster Invitees. You’re with the team via a relatively late deal, labeled “minor league” for bookkeeping purposes; Marlon Byrd and LaTroy Hawkins bought the Mets time by agreeing to that ultimately temporary classification a year ago. Most likely you carry the burden of proof, holding a lesser degree of job security and facing a regular season that’s inherently more to-be-determined than a plurality of your 40-man colleagues. The implication of “invited to Spring Training” can’t help but be that you’re on the “over” portion of the hill where your career arc is concerned. But that’s not always the case.
NRI is also the ticket for prospects who don’t figure to break camp with the big club. Three names familiar from last summer’s Futures Game — Brandon Nimmo, Noah Syndergaard and Rafael Montero — have made the same list as the aforementioned veterans, albeit from a less marginal entry point. Those just approaching the hill are invited to major league Spring Training for a brief taste of what figures to await them for real in springs to come. Unless somebody wows everybody, they’re headed back to the minor league complex in a matter of weeks.
With all that understood, what about the formal extending of the invitation? If you were on the team last year and maintain every reasonable certainty that you’re going to be on the team this year, I assume you know what to do and where to go. But when you’re “invited to Spring Training,” what are the logistics? I’d love to believe there’s a ritual to it, perhaps that some vestige within the Basic Agreement mandates a telegram be personally delivered to each and every Spring Training invitee. Or that teams literally send out invitations packed with RSVP cards and those thin squares of tissue paper that don’t seem to serve any earthly purpose.
Hey, maybe all these years I haven’t realized that those little sheets were redeemable for a tryout at shortstop.
It doesn’t actually seem to work that way, but I figure it’s gotta work some way. Late every August when I was a kid, an envelope would show up in the mail from the local school district. It was the harbinger of doom envelope telling me that on the Wednesday after Labor Day it was all about to end. A strange-sounding room number was listed and a bus pass was thrown in. If I wanted a ride to school, I’d damn well better be standing on the “N.W. Corner” of Neptune Boulevard. It provided an early lesson in geography. To this day, I envision my first-grade bus pass coordinates to gauge north from south and east from west.
Curiosity and the lack of actual baseball got the best of me, so I decided to try and find out the process behind being invited to Spring Training. Or at least extending the invitation. I bothered somebody who works for the Mets and asked, in essence, “How does this go down?” The person I asked was nice enough to walk me through it.
Alas, Western Union doesn’t ring anybody’s bell and invitations aren’t engraved (also, I don’t think there’s really such a place as a tailor tea garden). The whole business doesn’t differ all that much from any other baseball contract. The player’s agent and the ballclub work out the specific language. Once the player is in camp, he doesn’t wear a scarlet NRI to distinguish him from his 40-man roster peers. Same clubhouse for dressing, same clubhouse spread for noshing, same access to weights and measures; the trainers who condition seven-time All-Star David Wright condition the non-roster invitees with just as much care and effort.
Semantics aside, if you’ve been invited to big league camp, you’re a big-leaguer, fella. Contractual status and performance will combine to determine whether you’re still a big-leaguer come March 31, but in the meantime, enjoy it while it lasts.
One note of Spring Training caution comes from someone who knows of life as an NRI, former fringe reliever Dirk Hayhurst, the righty whose fame for writing about baseball exceeds his fame for pitching it. Though we all see reports of eye-popping big league salaries, players who earn them don’t start banking those stratospheric numbers until the season starts. And by no means is everybody invited to a big league camp guaranteed Freddie Freeman’s financial future. Thus, the Basic Agreement calls for a Spring Training allowance — meal money is the colloquialism you’ve probably heard all your life — but Hayhurst pointed out in 2012 that the then-prevailing figure of $140 per week had to go a long way.
Remember, you’re not getting paid during spring training. If you eat beyond your allowance, it’s on you. This says nothing of other investments you might want to make, like chewing tobacco (if you’re a mother reading this article, replace tobacco with bubble gum), alcohol (Gatorade), video games (video games) or poker buy-ins (charitable contributions).
May I humbly suggest that you invest in Tupperware. Sexy? No. Practical? Yes. You can bring home a lot of food from the field in those glorious plastic containers, especially if your organization cooks its meals on site. With meals taken care of, the meal money is yours.
The things we mere non-baseball playing mortals don’t think about, huh?
But I have been thinking about the envelope from the school district, and my source at the Mets says there is a major league equivalent. The team’s director of travel sends a packet of information to every player, from the long-timers to the first-timers. Unless you’ve spent previous springs in St. Lucie County, you’d need something to tell you which corner to stand on, so to speak. Wright likely knows his way around town. The Teagardens and Clarks (let alone the Grandersons and Colons) probably don’t.
No bus passes of which I’m aware in the packet, but it does include reporting dates, contacts for housing and hotels, where to turn if you want cable, places to dine (if you can afford to avoid the Tupperware for an evening), places to golf…a veritable Welcome Wagon brochure for the new seasonal resident. Makes sense. This isn’t fantasy camp. You’re a professional baseball player who’s just been transferred to Port St. Lucie on a corporate fact-finding mission. You and the team need to discover if you’re going to be heading to New York when the mission is over.
It’s a job. It’s an adventure. It’s an invitation to Spring Training. If you want to be a Met, I’m guessing you’re willing to overlook the lack of fancy tissue paper.