Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A Hint of Spring

People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring. -- Rogers Hornsby

As we approach the final weeks of winter, I glance from the upstairs window of my home in Horsham and see snow-covered yards and rooftops, icicles hanging from gutters, and brown, worn, tired-looking Oak trees, cold and naked, betraying not a hint of spring. The cold winds of March have arrived early this year, the winter chill stalking the Pennsylvania air, refusing to allow the sun’s warmth to penetrate the ground below.

I am thus especially grateful for the start of spring training, the annual baseball ritual when teams ready themselves for a new season, each club beginning with a fresh slate and a zero in the loss column. Pitchers and catchers reported to camp in mid-February, followed by position players a week later. It is at this time each year I discern from a distance the first signs of spring, the sounds of baseballs popping into the webbings of catcher’s mitts, the smell of grass accompanying a cool breeze and blinding sky over green and ordered fields. Spring training is when rookies and prospects compete for a spot on their teams and a chance to fulfill lifelong dreams; when aging veterans struggle to prolong their careers, work on their timing and condition their bodies to minimize the chance of injury and elude, for one more year, the inevitable decline of their natural skills.

With the sun brightening the Florida and Arizona skies and casting summer-like shadows over the cozy ballparks of the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues, players condition their arms, hone their fielding skills, run wind sprints, and take endless rounds of batting practice. In March, they play a month of exhibition games, primarily to allow pitchers adequate time to build endurance and get their arms into season-ready condition, while the position players bide their time for when the real play begins. The outcomes of these games are meaningless, and it is the one time of year I can follow the Cardinals calmly, enjoy the game’s slow, steady rhythms, and connect with a simpler time, when baseball was played in the daytime in small, intimate ballparks like Ebbets Field and Sportsman Park, where fans could practically reach out and touch the players.

I look forward to spring training every year, in part because it grants me a visual escape from winter, and in part because it fuels my enthusiasm for the upcoming baseball season and gives me permission to study the rosters, check out the new additions and promising rookies. It permits me to live vicariously through the lives of men who, though half my age, I somehow equate to older brothers, as if time and perceptions have stood still since I was twelve years old.

The start of spring training allows me to indulge in the annual baseball previews, to study the scouting reports of opposing teams, analyze the expected starting lineups and pitching rotations, and evaluate the depth of each team’s bullpen. It allows me to examine the schedules and visualize the early season games; to note when and where the Cardinals play in April; and to plan and prepare for their arrival to Philadelphia – this year, four games in early May – when my anxiety levels will surely increase as I experience war-time rushes of adrenaline when crossing enemy lines into Citizens Bank Park.

Spring training causes me a certain amount of mental anguish as well, as I worry about things over which I have no control – the health of Chris Carpenter’s shoulder and Kyle Lohse’s forearm, and the proffered terms of Albert Pujols’ contract extension. I’ll worry, too, about whether Colby Rasmus will hit left-handed pitching this year, and whether Ryan Franklin can repeat his All-Star performance at the back end of the bullpen. I could go on, but unless you are a true baseball fan, one with a lifelong, unending passion for a particular team, I am afraid you may not understand, or worse, even care.

It is difficult to explain to a non-fan why I care so much about baseball in general and the Cardinals in particular – perhaps only other fans can truly appreciate my distorted priorities. Roger Angell, the long-time literary editor of the The New Yorker, came close when he wrote in Five Seasons (Bison Books, 2004):

It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitative as a professional sports team, and the amused superiority and icy scorn that the non-fan directs at the sports nut (I know this look -- I know it by heart) is understandable and almost unanswerable. Almost. What is left out of this calculation, it seems to me, is the business of caring -- caring deeply and passionately, really caring -- which is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives. And so it seems possible that we have come to a time when it no longer matters so much what the caring is about, how frail or foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved. Naiveté -- the infantile and ignoble joy that sends a grown man or woman to dancing and shouting with joy in the middle of the night over the haphazardous flight of a distant ball -- seems a small price to pay for such a gift.
There is a scene in Fever Pitch, the 2005 romantic comedy starring Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore, which captures, painfully and humorously, Angell’s meaning. Ben, a Boston schoolteacher and, let’s just say, committed Red Sox fan, is asked by his girlfriend Lindsay to accompany her on a short business trip to Paris. Ben’s initial reaction is excited anticipation, until he realizes she means this weekend . . . when the Mariners are in town for a crucial series with the Sox. Ben hems and haws and suggests it may not be such a convenient time for him, that he is really busy with, well, things. Lindsay quickly realizes Ben’s “dilemma” -- flying to Paris would require him to miss the next three Red Sox games. Lindsay understandably reacts as one would expect (without giving anything away, she is not happy). Even though she is by now well aware of Ben’s over-the-top affection for the Red Sox, she cannot comprehend the degree to which Ben’s identity and everyday existence revolves around his favorite baseball team. No matter how hard she tries, she cannot fully appreciate “summer guy” Ben, who falls a bit short, in her view, of “winter guy” Ben. “You don't see us tangled up in the sheets with the Eiffel Tower in the background,” she exclaims, “You see the Mariners are coming in, and Pedro's pitching Friday.” Ben immediately corrects her, “No. On Saturday, Schilling’s on Friday.”

I sadly confess that, when I first saw this scene, for one brief moment, I knew exactly how Ben felt. Don’t get me wrong, if I ever had the opportunity to go to Paris on a whim with the woman of my dreams – even if it meant missing Carpenter and Wainwright pitching in a crucial series – I would suck it up and go to Paris. Well, as long as it wasn’t the playoffs, or the final series of the season with the fate of the division title on the line….

My youngest daughter, Hannah, who shares my passion for the Cardinals but retains a sense of proportion and innocently believes baseball is simply a game meant to be fun, fails to understand why I get so upset when the Cardinals lose, or when something really terrible happens like, you know, Ludwick taking a called third strike with runners in scoring position. She has admonished me on more than a few occasions, “Dad, don’t sweat the small stuff!” to which I inevitably respond, “This isn’t small stuff!” I am nearly 51 and still hopeless, I know. But as Ben explained to Lindsay, “I like being part of something that's bigger than me. . . It's good for your soul to invest in something you can't control.”

There is something about baseball in the spring, when the games don’t count, that captivates me in the same way I am drawn to baseball at all levels; it is why I occasionally stop to notice a high school game in the distance, and why I arrive at the ballpark early to watch batting practice. As Roger Angell described in The Summer Game (Ballantine Books, 1972):

…what kept us there, what nailed us to our seats for a sweet, boring hour or more, was not just the whop! of bats, the climbing white arcs of outfield flies, and the swift flight of the ball whipped around the infield, but something more painful and just as obvious – the knowledge that we had never made it. We would never know the rich joke that doubled over three young pitchers in front of the dugout; we would never be part of that golden company on the field, which each of us, certainly for one moment of his life, had wanted more than anything else in the world to join.
As time passes and my baseball playing days recede ever so farther into the background, it is the small things, the relaxed atmosphere of spring baseball and the orderliness of fielding drills and batting practice, which for me brings forth memories of summers long gone. When I am watching a ballgame, as for Angell, “for those two or three hours, there is really no place I would rather be.” Baseball is in my blood, it is the one constant in my life outside of family. It brings me joy and frustration, heartache and exhilaration, but in the end, it is “a Little Leaguers game that,” in the words of Mario Cuomo, “excites us throughout adulthood . . . even as the setting sun pushes the shadows past home plate.”

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