SPRING TRAINING is one of the biggest affronts to competitive zeal in all of sports, everybody knows that. A lot of guys gather in Florida sunlight—or, increasingly, in the Arizona glare—to work out off-season kinks, sweat off a few lbs and sign autographs, hardly anything more. Some of them are trying to make teams, and those players go about their work with urgency. But most of them, with guaranteed contracts assuring their roster spots, take camp for what it is, a sort of spa, a lightly themed resort, a way out of chores back home. Did we mention it's called camp? In spring training the main thing to keep in mind is that the games don't count.
We hardly have to channel George Carlin to parse the astonishingly modest ambitions of baseball's seasonal preamble, at least compared with other sports. Spring training: We're trying here, don't be too hard on us. The NFL's exhibition season: We'll show you! Nobody's ever pretended it was otherwise, not even baseball itself, which practically gives away the games (relatively speaking), counting on the continued presence of retirees winding out the clock in the sunbaked bleachers for a fan base. Expectations are well-managed, let's put it that way.
Still, when the Astros went winless in 19 consecutive games this month—16 losses, three ties—people began to be alarmed. "Spring records mean nothing," one scout told SI.com, "but that's a little extreme." It's hard (previously believed impossible) to lose that many games in spring training, because even if you're not trying to win, neither is the other team. Managers are giving Double A pitchers a look-see, splitting rosters so everybody has some at bats. In this T-ball atmosphere, where everybody gets a chance to play, shouldn't the Astros have found at least one wide-eyed farm boy they could blister?
They could not. Until Houston finally won a game last Friday—its first win since beating the Nationals in the spring opener—the Astros had been outscored, 131--53, and their team batting average (.207) was just thismuch above the Mendoza line. They hadn't scored more than two runs in their previous eight games, some of them surely pitched by wide-eyed farm boys. This level of ineptitude challenges even the negligible tolerances for spring production. It's hard (previously believed impossible) for fans to get too worked up over spring training records. Managers are given lots of leeway, players tons of breathing space. No need to bring home a trophy just yet. But, geez! Nineteen straight?
"I'm sure," said Astros veteran Lance Berkman, "the fans are in full panic mode now." You think? By March 17, when it was learned in Houston that owner Drayton McLane was flying to Florida, message boards and blogs were ablaze with speculation he was taking time out of his busy life to personally fire the hitting coach. When it turned out he was appearing on behalf of third baseman Aaron Boone, who was announcing he was leaving the team to have open-heart surgery (in case spring training hadn't sucked enough), the fans reacted less out of sympathy for Boone than bitterness over a missed opportunity. What about that hitting coach?
The players, of course, are still clinging to spring training platitudes, as well as those guaranteed contracts. "If we were 15--1," asked Berkman, would "that make us World Series favorites?" It's true, success in the Grapefruit League has very little carryover, and not even hard-core fans give spring training much predictive value. (The same is true even in the NFL, where it turns out every contest isn't Armageddon. Witness the Lions, who went 4--0 in the 2008 preseason. Look where that got them.) But it's also clear that there are limits to this preseason-as-picnic tradition and that the Astros are exploring them.
Manager Cecil Cooper, for one, is feeling a little heat. Not from the owner, who is proving to be an affable inspiration; McLane hung around camp last week, telling players he wasn't leaving until they won. (They did so almost immediately, arresting the skid and saving him all those reticketing fees.) Cooper is beginning to wonder if the team's performance is more than just an anomaly. "I know it's early in spring training," he said, "but, man! Woo!" Every so often during the streak he took a yellow highlighter to his roster, crossing out every name with an average below .180. It was a distressingly pastel depth chart. As if that's not depressing enough, he also charts errors. Any day the Astros get a hit before they make an error is a good day for Cooper, but there just haven't been very many of them. "In 41 years," he says, "I've never seen it like this."
Could the Astros be as bad as their record? They have one of the game's best starters in Roy Oswalt and one of the best relievers in Jose Valverde. They've got big bats in Berkman and Miguel Tejada, and they've just signed catcher Pudge Rodriguez. "The  Cardinals won the World Series with not anything more than we have now," Berkman protested. They will probably win more than 6% of their games—that would be 10—come the regular season, we'll give him that. But this stretch of sustained failure does give pause. It challenges the whole idea of spring training as just seven weeks of enforced camaraderie, a competition-free zone, no consequences whatsoever. It's just not likely, not from what we know of sports, that a team can lose that many games in a row and have it simply not matter.
Well, that's what we're about to find out. Let this little skein of incompetence be baseball's test case, the final proof of sport's last rite of irrelevance. Spring training is important, or it's not. Ourselves, we're kind of hoping the Astros do go on to the World Series, if only to satisfy the fantasy that somewhere (either in Arizona or Florida, of course) and sometime (just early spring) there are grown men playing baseball just for the fun of it, without penalty or sanction. It's a pleasant idea, isn't it? The games will count way too much, soon enough.
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It's hard to lose that often in camp. Even if you're not trying to win, NEITHER IS THE OTHER TEAM.
ILLUSTRATION BY FRED HARPER