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OPINION: MLB Should Create Spring Training Version of HBO's 'Hard Knocks'
By Jack Vita,
After visiting Seattle Mariners camp Tuesday, Jack Vita has an idea for a new series that Major League Baseball should get behind. MLB should create its own version of HBO's 'Hard Knocks' that focuses on an MLB team as it goes through the rigors of spring training in the preseason.
For the past two weeks, I have been out in Arizona, bouncing around the Cactus League, visiting a different Major League Baseball team's spring training camp each day.
Tuesday morning, I arrived at Mariners' camp bright and early. The clubhouse was open to the media from 7:00 a.m. to 8:40 a.m., a longer period of media accessibility than I have experienced at other camps. As I walked around the clubhouse at 7:05, I was met with recognizable faces and personalities. There was Jarred Kelenic, the can't-miss outfield prospect that has struggled to find his footing in his first two Major League seasons, but is off to a terrific spring and hopes to turn a corner in year three. There was the friendly Taylor Trammell, another former top prospect and MVP of the 2018 Futures game, who can't keep quiet about his love for dinosaurs or his Christian faith. There was the veteran and 2016 World Series champion Tommy La Stella, who, after signing a three-year, $18.75 million contract with the San Francisco Giants, was designated for assignment in January, with one year left on his contract and is now competing for a roster spot with the M's. The clubhouse was filled with unique players, each with unique stories.
As the locker room fills up as more players arrive, the atmosphere can best be described as joyous and optimistic. Players have been at spring training for over a month now, and are working out at the team's facilities in Peoria, Arizona each morning, before the team's meetings, warmups and games.
Spring training is not for the faint of heart; it's a grind. Despite the fatigue that may be beginning to set in for players and coaches, the mood is positive and upbeat. Loud pop music begins playing as players start challenging each other to ping-pong matches. This club is just beginning what it hopes will be a nine-month marathon to the finish line: its first World Series championship in franchise history. The club's players better like each other, because most of them will be seeing each other daily from now until the season ends, whenever that is. As for now, the mood is optimistic. On a fresh spring morning, hope springs eternal.
Media time ends and after spending some time in the media workroom, I'm out on the backfields of the Mariners' complex, watching players take batting practice and participate in various competitive hitting, bunting and fielding drills and minigames.
More familiar faces emerge. The first is newly-hired bullpen and quality control coach Stephen Vogt. The 2007 12th round pick out of Azusa Pacific carved out an eleven-year big league career for himself, making two All-Star appearances, and playing catcher for six different Major League teams. As a player, Vogt established a reputation for himself as a remarkable clubhouse guy that knew how to lead young players. During his playing career, when he wasn't busting out his spot-on impersonation of Chris Farley's 'Matt Foley' Saturday Night Live character or his best imitation of an NBA referee, he was mentoring and leading young players. Former teammate Ryan Dull played alongside Vogt in Oakland, with Vogt often catching for him. Dull told me on the Jack Vita Show earlier this year, that Vogt would one day make a great coach. Dull had no insider trading, and yet, Vogt was hired by the Mariners just days after Dull made that comment. Now, Vogt's a rookie coach, embarking on the next chapter of his baseball life.
I move over to a field where Mariners hitters are participating in a competitive hitting minigame, while hitting against a pitching machine. Former Mariners All-Star center fielder Mike Cameron participates in the competition with the Mariners young players. Despite being out of the game for 12 years, Cameron, or as the M's young players call him, 'Cam', is holding his own with the M's' young guns.
As I make my rounds among the four different practice fields, I arrive at the batting cages, where a Mariners great and future Hall of Famer is spotted, stretching as he prepares for a round of batting practice.
Ichiro Suzuki, still a part of the Mariners organization, has been working out at the Peoria Sports Complex with the Mariners every morning, while taking cuts in the cages. I ask Ichiro if he can still play. He jokingly says, "No," then laughs and says, "Yes, I can," while giving me a 'gotcha' look.
Ichiro, at the spry age of 49, enters the cages, and he's still got it. He hits frozen rope after frozen rope.
I continue to stand by the cages. Moments before Mariners' long-time play-by-play broadcaster Dave Sims approaches me, a thought enters my head. "Why doesn't Major League Baseball have its own version of HBO's 'Hard Knocks'? If only the general public could see what I am seeing right now!"
Since 2001, NFL films has entertained football fans with its docuseries and reality show, Hard Knocks . The series features a different NFL team each summer as it goes through training camp and prepares for the grind of an NFL season.
As Dave approaches me, we begin chatting, and I share my idea with him. Immediately, he is on board. He doesn't need any persuasion. Dave points to how, after watching the most recent season of Hard Knocks , he found himself invested in the performance of the Detroit Lions. This wasn't the first time I had heard this from someone. Viewers gravitated towards head coach Dan Campbell, and as the Lions put together their first winning season since 2017, football fans with no connection to the city of Detroit celebrated the Lions' success.
Similarly, the popularity of Formula 1 racing has risen exponentially in the United States, since Netflix introduced the docuseries Drive to Survive in 2019. Netflix is a juggernaut. It has over 230 million subscribers. When something trends on Netflix, it receives a lot of eyeballs. Now, the PGA Tour is trying to capitalize off the same formula with its new show Full Swing .
Both Drive to Survive and Hard Knocks do a great job of storytelling. As you watch both series, you become invested in the backgrounds and stories of the competitors. Once you're invested in players, you tend to want to follow them on and off the field.
Spring training is baseball's version of training camp. Each spring, a new collection of players is forced to come together and gel, in hopes of raising the Commissioner's Trophy in the fall. Not every player will make the team. A Major League clubhouse is filled with a diverse collection of personalities, many of whom come from countries outside of the United States.
Major League Baseball has long been criticized that it doesn't do a great job of marketing its players and letting the fans get a look at the players' personalities. What better way to draw interest from fans than to produce a Hard Knocks-like series on Netflix, for young people to binge, that would hopefully translate to greater interest in the game's players on a national level? And what better place to start, than the 2023 Seattle Mariners: a team with lofty goals in search of a monumental season for the franchise.