Thursday, March 15, 2012

Dispatches from Spring

I must have sensed that more was involved in baseball than the accomplishments of a few athletes and teams, and that I was now attached in a rather mysterious way to a larger structure, to something deep and rooted, with its own history, customs, records, honored and dishonored warriors, founders, superstitions, and clouded lore. I belonged and I cared, and because I have been lucky enough to go on caring, I have belonged to baseball now for almost half its history. – Roger Angell (Late Innings, Ballantine Books, 1982).
Winter has been unseasonably mild in Pennsylvania this year, the cold chill of January tamed by a February warm spell that never lifted. The geese have scarcely departed the lake near my house in Jenkintown; the snow shovels and ice picks remain stowed away in the garage, resembling old maintenance workers napping, idly passing the time on a slow afternoon. According to the calendar, Spring has not officially arrived, but this past week the prelude to Summer was in full bloom as I experienced my first taste of the 2012 baseball season; first, in Mesa, Arizona, where I watched the Cubs and Athletics play a quiet, uneventful game under the desert sun, and then days later in Jupiter, Florida, where the Cardinals stretched and sprinted and played catch in preparation for another summer of baseball.

There is something fresh and spiritually renewing about March baseball when the games are played in the daytime, in small, intimate ballparks where fans can sense a deeper connection to the players and the game’s history. The sun is bright, the air is warm, and the hopefulness of new beginnings ever present. Youngsters hover near the sidelines hoping for an autograph from an aged veteran or nameless rookie. Older fans are there to enjoy the moment, perhaps to reflect on simpler times. Spring baseball is the one time when even the passionate fan is gentle and unquestioning toward the home club, when moods are unaffected by the results on the field.

Sitting three rows back from the Cubs’ dugout in Mesa, I can hear the chatter of the players as they stand on the dugout steps. Momentarily I sense what it would be like to be young again, glove in hand, fielding ground balls and popups and shielding my eyes from the sun as I hold base runners on first when the pitcher goes into his stretch. But I am quickly reminded of how much older am I than the current crop of players, many of whom are less than half my age. My elbow hurts more these days, and my back aches, further distancing me from the days of yore, when my body was agile and free flowing, and when I dreamed of someday running wind sprints and joking with teammates on the outfield grass. Forty years have passed and, sitting in the stands a stone’s throw from the foul line, I am reminded of the 12 year-old boy I once was and, on days like this, long to be again. Only now do I genuinely understand what Red Smith meant when he said, “Ninety feet between home plate and first base may be the closest man has ever come to perfection.”

Many of the young players competing on these fields of beautifully manicured grass and perfectly dimensioned infields will not make a big league roster this year, certainly not in April when the high-priced stars and established veterans lay claim to the 25-slots allotted each team. The drumbeat of time and competition has diluted their dreams and visions of major league glory into more realistic, pressure-filled endeavors. During these games of early March, as the regulars take their time getting ready for the season, laughing and seemingly carefree, pacing themselves for the long, drawn out, 162-game marathon that is still three weeks away, unknown and unproven minor leaguers fighting for a spot on the big league roster, wearing numbers like 82 and 76, are playing the biggest games of their lives. In Mesa, I recognize few of these players and, for a moment, imagine a younger version of myself on the field, hoping to catch the attention of a wise and insightful manager while scattering line drives into the outfield gaps, stretching a double into a triple, and sliding head first into third as 6,000 fans cheer me on.

“Don’t tell me about the world,” writes Pete Hamill. “Not today. It’s springtime and they’re knocking baseballs around fields where the grass is damp and green in the morning and the kids are trying to hit the curve ball.” Spring is when baseball reminds us that it is only a game, when contract disputes, drug testing appeals, and free agent departures are momentarily filed away; when baseball is once more a venue for dreamers. In springtime, each team begins with a clean slate and fans come to the ballpark filled with optimism and the hope that their loyalties will be rewarded in the season yet to begin. It is the time of year when baseball fans are permitted to indulge the improbable, to believe that their ailing star will revert to his All-Star form and the 29 year-old third baseman, a career .250 hitter, will finally uncork his untapped potential; that the fourth man in the starting rotation will turn a mediocre fastball into an unhittable sinker, and that their team will exceed all expectations.

“More than any other American sport,” writes Thomas Boswell, “baseball creates the magnetic, addictive illusion that it can almost be understood.” In South Florida, as I watched the Cardinals play the Marlins and the next day, before the rains set in, four innings against the Nationals, I sensed that the Cardinals were a team with a far different dynamic, if only slightly modified cast, from last year. It is too early to tell if the absence of Albert Pujols will unduly burden an offense that remains otherwise potent with the likes of Matt Holliday, David Freese, Lance Berkman, and the newly acquired Carlos Beltran. Or if the retirements of Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan, who for sixteen years formed an intense partnership as manager and pitching coach, will open up fresh perspectives or cause confusion and disillusionment. Will a new manager liberate the talents of Tyler Greene, the former first-round draft pick and gifted young athlete who seemed incessantly stifled by LaRussa and has yet to find his way at the big league level? Or will the pressure to perform, the knowledge that this may be his last chance, when his every mistake, every failed at bat, is magnified in the papers and on sports talk radio, stand in the way and take the fun out of a game he has excelled at all his life?

I discussed these and other issues with several Cardinal fans I met in Jupiter, including an older man with a long, telephoto lens. He was a long-time season ticket holder at the old Busch Stadium back in St. Louis and was quietly taking pictures of men forty to fifty years his junior when I took my seat next to him. It didn’t take us long to connect and become fast friends as we shared an hour of in-depth Cardinals analysis; any differences in our ages, life experiences or political philosophies a profound irrelevancy. We were equally despondent over Prince Albert’s decision to sign with the Angels, a reminder of the darker, business side of the game that one easily forgets during the country quiet of a spring afternoon. We reminiscenced over the days when Whitey Herzog ran the club, consistently winning with a combination of speed, defense, and pitching. We shared the hope that the Cards’ new manager, Mike Matheny, will maintain the good chemistry and good fortune of the remarkable season just ended.

Cardinal Nation was in full bloom in Jupiter, a sea of red shirts and hats filling the 6,600 seats of Roger Dean Stadium. All of the Cardinal faithful I spoke with were forever grateful for the memorable end to a magical season that was October past. We cannot realistically expect anything like it again. Indeed, the Gods of Baseball have already beckoned as reports of nerve damage to Chris Carpenter’s neck dotted the headlines of the St. Louis papers during my four days in Florida. I am tempted to make comparisons and private predictions, but there is all summer for that. The season will turn serious and competitive soon enough. For now, with a warm breeze coming off the coast, I simply take in the play on the field with a renewed appreciation for small ballparks, the crack of the bat, and the tranquil murmur of an afternoon game played in the Florida sun.

It is times like these when I most appreciate the timelessness of baseball. There is no clock, no finish line, no final countdown ending the game on a referee’s whistle. “This is the unique, unchangeable feature of baseball,” writes Roger Angell in The Summer Game (Ballantine Books, 1989), “and perhaps explains why this sport, for all the enormous changes it has undergone . . . remains somehow rustic, unviolent, and introspective. Baseball’s time is seamless and invisible, a bubble within which players move at exactly the same pace and rhythms as all their predecessors.” It is how the game was played when we were young, when our fathers and their fathers were young; and it will be how the game is played for generations to come. It is perhaps why we cling with the passage of time to this remaining vestige of our youth; to the arc of a fly ball and the sound of popping leather, the smell of freshly cut grass and grilled hot dogs in the spring sun, and to the sighs and smiles of the faces in the stands. It may very well be true, as Bill Veeck once said, that “[t]he season starts too early and finishes too late and there are too many games in between.” But the older I get, the more certain I become that life without baseball would be less meaningful, less fulfilling, and less fun.

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