Spring Training Has Begun — For Baseball, And For Candidates

Mar 16, 2015
Originally published on March 18, 2015 12:21 pm

Baseball fans endure the long winter in part because they know, come March, the game will again come alive. They can't wait for their radio, TV, computer screen or smartphone to come alive with scenes from warm climates featuring men in crisp uniforms pitching and catching.

Major League Baseball's spring training is underway, but at this stage, wins and losses aren't really important. It's all about fundamentals: getting ready for the regular season and hopefully the playoffs.

But while the return of baseball is usually a good news story, you may not be as pleased to think that another long season of competition is also getting underway.

It has its own form of spring training in the fundamentals — and the eventual winner moves into the White House.

Grapefruit, Cactus, Corn And Granite

For spring training, major league teams based in Florida play in what's called the Grapefruit League. There's also the Cactus League in Arizona.

But in politics, most of the early action is in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states on the presidential nominating calendar.

You might call it the Corn Circuit and the Granite League.

Fan Interaction

Election Day in Iowa and New Hampshire is still some 11 months away, which means would-be candidates have a chance to spend a lot of time there to win over voters.

Actually, it's a requirement.

In Iowa, a presidential hopeful will boast of having visited all 99 counties, holding small meet-and-greets at coffee shops and pizza joints in every part of the state. New Hampshire is much smaller and thus easier to traverse. But the voters there like to meet every single candidate running in person multiple times before deciding who to support.

It's another way the early days of a campaign are like baseball's preseason. There's access right now in baseball — and lots of it. Autographs and encounters with players are easy to come by during this phase.

So it is with candidates. The security buffer isn't up yet, and Secret Service agents aren't keeping the crowds and the press at a distance.

Now Back To The Game

During the radio broadcast of last week's game with the Washington Nationals, Atlanta Braves announcer Ben Ingram said, "Well, spring training is definitely an opportunity to get better, to work on what you need to work on, become better at your craft."

Lynn Vavreck, a professor at UCLA, describes the presidential candidates' version of the same.

"They'll go and they'll give little speeches — or sometimes big speeches — to groups. And they'll try out messages," she says. "They'll try out different types of speeches — funny speeches, serious speeches — to see how they are at delivering them, and to see what kind of reaction they can get from the crowd, what kind of rapport they can build."

Ball clubs use this time of year to work on potential weaknesses. Campaigns do, too. Take Jeb Bush, who has had to answer the persistent question about being another Bush. His father was the 41st president. His brother was the 43rd. He's looking to be the 45rd.

He's asked about it just about everywhere he goes. He answer always includes some version of this: "I love my dad. In fact, my dad is the greatest man alive. ... And I love my brother. And I think he's been a great president. It doesn't bother me a bit to be proud of them and love them."

He gave that response in Detroit more than a month ago. Since then he's fine-tuned and streamlined that answer, stating flatly that "I'm my own man." It's a line that attempts to distance him from his brother's foreign policy and the decision to go to war in Iraq.

Money Is No Guarantee, But You Can't Compete Without It

Jeb Bush has got another big asset: money.

A pile of cash sure helps you win in baseball. But it's no guarantee. (Ask the Yankees.)

In politics, though, it's a campaign's lifeblood. Paying for TV ads is the big ticket, but there's also staff, opposition research and high-tech tools. Still ... it's no guarantee of success there, either.

Rookie Phenoms

Bush is one of the seasoned veterans on the campaign trail this year. But in spring training, fans love to watch for the next new phenom to catch fire.

In the presidential race so far, that person appears to be Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. He has wowed crowds with his tales of taking on unions in Wisconsin and with tough talk on foreign policy.

But rookies on the national stage also make errors, like when Walker generated controversy during an appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference. He was asked a question about how he would handle ISIS. In his answer he cited his experience dealing with the massive union-backed protests during his first term as governor in Wisconsin. His staff had to assure reporters that he wasn't comparing union members to terrorists.

The Burden Of Being The Odds-On Favorite

If it's sometimes tricky for rookies, the highly touted favorites bear a different burden. Right now people say Hillary Clinton is a sure bet to make it to the World Series. But expectations bring scrutiny and pressure: Witness the current controversy involving her emails while she was secretary of state, and the critical reviews of the press conference she held last week in an effort to explain why she used a personal email account for government business.

Defending her right to delete emails that she said were strictly personal, Clinton said, "They were personal and private about matters that I believed were within the scope of my personal privacy and that particularly of other people."

The questions at the news conference were tough. Commentators cast doubt on her answers. At times she appeared defensive.

Any manager of a team bedeviled by off-field issues must have been able to relate.

By The Numbers

Finally, to take this analogy into extra innings, let's talk about polls. They're like the box scores on spring training baseball games: They don't always tell us much about how the season will actually go.

Eight years ago there was a highly touted presidential contender named Rudy Giuliani. At this same point in the 2008 presidential cycle, Giuliani was way ahead in the polls.

As it turned out, he never made it past Florida.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Baseball spring training is underway. Players are getting ready for the long regular season and, they hope, the playoffs afterward. And this gets us thinking about spring training of another sort.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It is training for an even longer season - the presidential campaign season. Potential candidates are practicing their own fundamentals, knowing as they do that the winner of the playoffs to come will move into the White House. Here's NPR's Don Gonyea.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Baseball fans endure the long winter waiting, waiting for their game to again come alive.

(SOUNDBITE OF ATLANTA BRAVES RADIO NETWORK BROADCAST)

BEN INGRAM: And this is your home for spring training, the Atlanta Braves Radio Network.

GONYEA: That broadcast came from Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Fla., a part of the Grapefruit League. There's also the Cactus League in Arizona. In politics, though, you might call it the Corn Circuit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SENATOR TED CRUZ: God bless the great state of Iowa.

GONYEA: That's Senator Ted Cruz taking his warm-ups. And in New Hampshire - let's call it the Granite League. Senator Marco Rubio was recently there, touching base.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hello, good to see you.

SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: How are you? Good to see you.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Welcome to New Hampshire.

GONYEA: That fan interaction gets to a key similarity between spring training and the early campaign - access. Autographs and encounters with players are easy to come by at this phase, so it is with candidates. Now back to that game and Atlanta announcer Ben Ingram.

(SOUNDBITE OF ATLANTA BRAVES RADIO NETWORK BROADCAST)

INGRAM: Spring training is definitely an opportunity to get better, work on what you need to work on and become better at your craft. Juan Jaime gets that opportunity here in the bottom of the eighth inning.

GONYEA: And here's the campaign version of the same from Lynn Vavreck, a professor at UCLA.

LYNN VAVRECK: They'll go, and they'll give little speeches or sometimes big speeches to groups. And they'll try out messages or they'll try out different types of speeches - funny speeches, serious speeches - to see how they are at delivering them and to see what kind of reaction they can get from the crowd, what kind of rapport they can build.

GONYEA: Ball clubs use this time to address potential weakness - campaigns, too. Take Jeb Bush, who has to answer the persistent question about being another Bush.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

JEB BUSH: I love my dad. In fact, my dad is the greatest man alive, and if anybody disagrees, we'll go outside. Unless you're, like, 6'5" and 250 and much younger than me, then we'll negotiate.

(LAUGHTER)

BUSH: I'll still - not going to change my mind for sure. And I love my brother, and I think he's been a great president. It doesn't bother me a bit to be proud of them and love them.

GONYEA: Jeb Bush has another big asset - money. A pile of cash sure helps you win in baseball, but it's no guarantee - ask the Yankees. In politics, though, it's a campaign's lifeblood. Paying for TV ads is the big ticket, but also staff, opposition research and high-tech tools. Still, it's no guarantee of success there either. In spring training, fans watch for the next new phenom. In the presidential race, so far, that person appears to be Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

GOVERNOR SCOTT WALKER: We need a president, a leader, who will stand up and say we will take the fight to them.

GONYEA: But rookies on the national stage also make errors. And Walker generated controversy when he cited his experience with protesters in Wisconsin as part of an answer about how he'd handle ISIS. Highly touted favorites bear a different burden. People say Hillary Clinton is a sure bet to make it to the World Series, but expectations bring scrutiny and pressure. Witness the current flap involving her emails while she was secretary of state.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CONFERENCE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Why did you wait two months? Why did you wait two months to turn those emails over? I mean, the rules say you have to turn them over.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Secretary Clinton...

GONYEA: That's from a news conference last week. Here's Clinton.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CONFERENCE)

HILLARY CLINTON: Because they were personal and private, about matters that I believed were within the scope of my personal privacy and that particularly of other people.

GONYEA: Any manager of a team bedeviled by off-field issues can no doubt relate. Finally, to take this analogy into extra innings, let's talk about polls. They're like the box scores of spring training games. They don't always tell us how the season will go. Eight years ago, there was a presidential contender named Rudy Giuliani. He was way ahead in the polls, but as it turned out, he never made it past Florida. Don Gonyea, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.