Monday, March 12, 2012

Spring Training

Late February, early March; it may be winter to most people but to baseball fans it is spring. Daffodils and tulips are inching up through their frozen fuse. Even with global warming, airports will be locked down from a blast of arctic air. Ski masks can be seen on faces which are not holding up a bank. But in the citrus and cactus leagues, where the living is easy, a crack of the bat and old bones can be heard.

Veterans swear they’re good for another season in spite of reporting to camp forty pounds overweight. Hungry rookies with fresh legs vie for the one or two open spots on the roster. This morning’s cantaloupe had ripe written all over it but clearly wasn’t ready for prime time. The mystery of melon is the same with ballplayers. Some peak early and never develop beyond that. Young prospects will feel the scrutiny of many eyes; whether they get a jump on a fly ball, whether they have baseball-smarts, if their faults are correctible, if they will ripen.

Reporters look for an angle and a back story. Statisticians sharpen their pencils. Announcers practice their clich├ęs. Umps prepare to get the lip. Ground-keepers go over their wet-down and smoothing of infield dirt. Is their anything more virgin, more Spring than an untrammeled infield?

Fans open the sport’s section and skip to page 6 or 7 for notes about their team. Any tidbit will do. A new clubhouse leader emerges. Another one, in three paragraphs, says he’s not talking to the press anymore.

There will be a month of freakish injuries which only happen to baseball players. A pitcher will cut his throwing hand on a can opener, so he says. Actually he was in a bar when he crushed his third martini glass. The promising young shortstop will slip a disc lifting up his 2-year old. Though unnamed sources say he was seen after curfew exiting a motel room.

You have to love the game for its non-athletic-looking athletes, alone. Some uber-arms often attached themselves to under-nourished bodies. Unlike most contact sports with jocks who look like they were genetically engineered, baseball has found room for nerds and wonks that would fit in at H & R Block.

Spring training is followed avidly by incorrigible fans still grumbling over winter trades that happened or didn’t. What do we care what the owner spends? The more he lavishes we take it as a form of love. He owes it to us after all we’ve done for him.

The players come with baggage, dragging columns of numbers. How does he hit against southpaws, at night versus daytime, with runners on base? With all this analysis the game remains a mystery. The outcome may hinge on a missed sign, a bad call, even the infield dirt, over-watered which slows a runner or the ball. As a fan I will feel a tad better or worse about life for a few minutes even as I know the outcome has no consequences.

I need this alternative universe. It is in my body rhythm. Nothing signifies renewal so much as the clean slate of opening day. Every player is batting zero. To start the season in 1940, Bob Feller pitched a no-hitter for Cleveland. By the end of the day everyone on the White Sox was still hitting zero. But the season was underway.

Hope springs eternal until mid-July when most of us accept our team’s fate, with resignation. Yet we continue to root for an individual, his streak, his stats, his record-breaking something. Every game is a new drama, unrehearsed, where a never-to-be-forgotten moment might occur. Sort of reminds me of life.

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