In a cold Cactus League spring, players crave the warmth of the Hot Stove

PHOENIX — In a few days, Brewer’s shortstop Willy Adames will be leaving for the World Baseball Classic. He sounded excited about the opportunity, a chance for high-level competition amidst the camaraderie of his Dominican Republic compatriots.

And of course there was the prospect of seeing the sun again.

After all, the Dominican team trains in Florida, far from the frigid hellscape of Arizona.

“It’s bloody cold in here,” Adames said. “I do not get it. It’s supposed to be beautiful. Maybe a little cooler. But it was freezing.”

The temperature was 42 degrees when Adames braved the nippness to enter the Brewers’ clubhouse on Thursday. Technically, he wasn’t at risk of frostbite. But this still qualified as positive arctic for the Cactus League. Which is why the pitch clock isn’t the talk of the town. It’s the cold.

Across the Salt River Valley this spring, from Scottsdale to Surprise, teeth are chattering and people chattering. Players rearrange their schedules in search of warmth. Executives are grateful for the wonders of modern technology: why venture into the cool desert, bitter and moody, to watch a bullpen session when you can stream it live from the comfort of your office? Reporters wear scarves and squeeze hand warmers. Scouts in parkas are sitting in the stands, jealous of those in the press box. (That envy may be misplaced; the heat briefly went out at Camelback Ranch on Thursday.)

“We’re starting to really get into the momentum of spring training, but it still doesn’t really feel like spring training,” said Max Muncy, third baseman for the Dodgers. “We have guys who wear hats and hoodies and jackets. Everyone is trying to stay warm.”

On February 25th, the day the Cactus League opened, the maximum temperature in central Phoenix was 76 degrees. Not bad. However, for the next five days, the temperature did not rise above 65 degrees. It snowed in Scottsdale on Wednesday evening. Thursday’s high was 55 — 19 degrees off the historical average. The crowd at Peoria Stadium jeered as the PA announcer relayed the 51-degree temperature in first seat. The forecast for Friday offered a slight improvement: 63 degrees.

That may not sound like much to those trapped in homes or office buildings in Chicago (high on Thursday 38 degrees), Milwaukee (40 degrees) or Cleveland (45 degrees). But here on Thursday it was almost as cold as in Cincinnati (54 degrees). And it’s been cold here for a long time.

“Oh my god, it’s the first time I’ve been in Arizona this long,” said Brewers hitting coach Ozzie Timmons. “It’s bad.”

In spring, the games take place in the afternoon, but the working day begins long before that. Morning is a time for tweaking swings, practicing catches, and throwing bullpen sessions. This work usually takes place outdoors. Unless the elements intervene.

Wednesday’s overnight rainfall blanketed the Salt River Fields, home of the Diamondbacks and Rockies. “We got swamped over there,” Arizona manager Torey Lovullo said. So infielders brought in grounders and hitters used the batting cages.

It didn’t take snow to push people in this spring. Technological advances throughout the sport allow players to complete tasks without entering nature. There was less and less beating outdoors. “As long as they can get their swings in,” Timmons said. “We don’t have to constantly watch the ball fly out of the park.”

In a normal spring, Dodgers catcher Austin Barnes schedules his reception drills for the morning. He crouches in front of a machine that spits baseballs onto his glove, preparing him for the rigors of managing the pitching team. One morning that spring, he realized his routine was putting his health at risk. “It’s too cold,” Barnes said. “It’s going to friggin’ break your hand and stuff.” Now he does these post-workout exercises when the temperature is more forgiving.

Some strive for optimism in the cold. Conditions were miserable when Brewers starter Brandon Woodruff threw his first session of live batting practice. He tried to be pragmatic. Milwaukee opens the season at Wrigley Field. The Windy City at the end of March isn’t exactly paradise. So he braced himself while suffering at his errand.

“The wind was about 30 miles an hour,” Woodruff said. “It knocked me out trying to play tag. I’m like, ‘Well, if I can help out here, that’ll get me ready for Chicago.’”

Lovullo offered similar positivity. Arizona plays under an air-conditioned roof at Chase Field. For a young team like the Diamondbacks, Lovullo explained, there are advantages to throwing wet balls and fighting the cold.

“It was a bit uncomfortable at times, between the winds and the temperature,” said Lovullo. “But what I said to the coaches is if we get on the field, we go. We have to work on that. We won’t have perfect conditions like Chase [Field] In April. We’ll go out and play in pretty bad weather.”

It’s not supposed to be like that. Prior to this year, Padres pitcher Seth Lugo had spent his entire career with the Mets. He had heard from colleagues how the compact cluster of complexes in the Cactus League outstripped the sprawling archipelago of Grapefruit League sites. That wasn’t what he had in mind.

“I don’t know why we train in winter,” said Lugo.

On days when the sun is shining, Lugo explained that it’s not so bad. The sun didn’t shine on Wednesday. “It was miserable,” he said. He stood in a row of San Diego pitchers, playing tag in the dark. He wore long sleeves under his uniform. “These are the most shifts I’ve used in spring training, that’s for sure,” said Lugo.

There is hope in the form of warmth on the horizon. Saturday’s forecast indicates Phoenix will feel 69-degree weather again. Next week it’s back to the 70s.

Until then, the residents of the Cactus League must suffer another day of cold and humiliation from the outside world. A pewter gray sky hung over Surprise Stadium on Wednesday as the Dodgers faced the Rangers. Rain would sully the afternoon and end the game after seven innings. The crowd spent most of the day huddled under the stands. On the first pitch, the press box announcer announced the conditions: 58 degrees, with 13 mph wind blowing over the diamond.

The announcer waited a beat before delivering the punchline.

“Temperature in Arlington, Texas: 70 degrees.”

(Top photo of Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman: Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images) In a cold Cactus League spring, players crave the warmth of the Hot Stove

Russell Falcon

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