Liotta: Spring training a special time for baseball fans 

Starting pitchers get their work in. Hitters hone their batting eye, sweating through the rust built up over an offseason. All the while wins and losses get tallied up, with hyperventilating fans counting them like poker chips.

Sure, the Giants opened their spring on a roll, which beats the alternative — just ask the Washington Nationals — but the first week of March registers a notch above batting practice and stretching when it comes to measuring a team’s prospects for the upcoming season.

Guys wearing No. 78 or No. 64 appear in the fifth inning of these spring training games. Players yet to reach legal drinking age get a turn in the outfield. Arms are getting loose.

Curve balls? They’re for April.

Spring training should come with a wonderful asterisk. Everything is make-believe, except for the desert sun and the Arizona warmth, each as intoxicating as the next.

Tim Lincecum throws out of the stretch, whether there’s a runner on or not. Muhammad Ali stopping by the clubhouse gets more headlines than the outgame of the game that afternoon.

Scoring five runs in the eighth inning off a guy with seven big-league appearances, a lifetime ERA of 9.53, and a first name spelled “Jhonny” is the stuff that fill preseason games the first week of March.

OK, the first four innings of these games matter a little bit. At least players scheduled to start the season on a major league roster dominate the lineups. After four, it’s a free-for-all. Any and all comers apply. At the most, teams are hoping to find lightning in a bottle.

Jonathan Sanchez pitching well in early March means as much as David Carr leading the 49ers to a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns in early August.

Which brings me to my second concern. Why would the 49ers sign an exact replica of Alex Smith?

Carr is Smith, only five years older. Both were the first overall pick of their respective drafts. Both had the sense knocked out of them during the first years of their NFL career.

Carr brings the 49ers nothing more than another injury insurance policy. And if the 49ers are planning for Smith getting hurt or playing badly now, they’ve got no chance in September. Either Smith is the man, or he isn’t.

And if he isn’t, get a bona fide NFL starter. Quick. The 49ers can’t be considered a team three years away from challenging for the playoffs. They’re a “now” team.

Whatever their “now” is, the 49ers are done rebuilding. They’re built. This is what they are, minus a couple of draft choices.

So put Smith under center and see where their chips fall.

Otherwise, the Niners are no further along than the Giants sending out some nonroster wannabe in late March hoping for lightning in a bottle.

Tim Liotta is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to The Examiner. E-mail him at

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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