Saturday, April 9, 2016

Why Time Begins on Opening Day

Born to an age where horror has become commonplace . . . we need to fence off a few parks where humans try to be fair, when skill has some hope of reward, where absurdity has a harder time than usual getting a ticket. – Thomas Boswell, Why Time Begins on Opening Day (Penguin Books, 1984)
The annual rite of spring has arrived, winter’s frost having given way to the April sun. After four months of darkness, a new baseball season is upon us, marked these first two weeks with opening day ceremonies in big league parks across North America. All 30 major league teams have ascended from Florida and Arizona after preparing for another long season. Six weeks of wind sprints and fielding drills, of shagging flies and picking grounders, of hitters dropping down bunts and slicing balls to the opposite field. Baseball players at work, perfecting their trade; hitters working on timing, outfielders on hitting the cut-off man, pitchers on commanding their fastballs; middle infielders perfecting their footwork, pivoting and slide-stepping the bag to turn a double play, catchers blocking pitches in the dirt, first basemen scooping errant throws. The field work of spring ball finally completed, it is time for the season to start.

Although the Cardinals won a major-league-leading 100 games last season, I feel uneasy about this team. It could be me, but they look flat and uninspired as season play begins (losing the first three games to the Pirates did nothing to alleviate my concerns). Injuries have already claimed their starting shortstop and an assortment of other players.

And yet . . . I hope. It is why the start of a new season is like opening a new book, the pages promising an intriguing story with a happy ending. On good days, I see what could be the best starting rotation in baseball, anchored by the crafty veterans Wainwright and Leake, the hard-throwing youngsters Wacha and Martinez, and the soft-tossing southpaw Garcia. And I see a lineup filled with the bright lights of Piscotty and Grichuk in the outfield, Wong and Carpenter in the infield, and I hope some more.

Most fans at this time of year are filled with hope, ignoring the gloomy predictions of the baseball prognosticators on ESPN and MLB TV. Like shifting trade winds on the high seas, much can happen over the marathon of a baseball season that alters the course of a pennant race. Injuries and luck – bad and good (though mostly bad) – are part of the game. How a team resolves adversity is the best predictor of how well its season ends.

In Why Time Begins on Opening Day, Thomas Boswell writes that baseball is “merely one of our many refuges within the real where we try to create a sense of order on our own terms.” Baseball offers us continuity and new beginnings, symmetry and timelessness. The ballpark itself is “living theater and physical poetry.” It possesses a pastoral beauty rooted in American history, memory, grass and dirt, wind and sun.

For the baseball fan, opening day is the start of a new year. Our calendar begins in April and ends in October. For me personally, the next seven months demands that all social plans be cleared through the Cardinals’ schedule. Tickets to the play on Sunday afternoon? Uh, I’m afraid not, the Cards have a day game against the Cubs. Saturday night at the movies? I don’t think so – but if we see an afternoon show, we can have dinner and make it back for the 8:15 start. I know, don’t say it. But that’s how it would go in a perfect world.

Whenever Andrea complains about my obsessive baseball watching, I remind her of when I binge-watched re-runs of The Sopranos through the winter of 2015. More recently, it was five full seasons of Breaking Bad. She quickly relents. When confronted with the alternative of murder, blood, vile crime, and petty corruption, the sweet innocence of our national pastime looks pretty good. Andrea now sighs in relief when the Cardinals come on the tube. She freely acknowledges the subtle beauty and elegance of the sport. And she appreciates, though she remains somewhat perplexed, by my life-long loyalty to the Cardinals. It is a loyalty grounded in childhood, in years of box scores and baseball cards, Strat-O-Matic games and the imagination of a ten-year-old boy throwing a ball against a pitching net in his back yard. It is why, as Boswell suggests, my “affection for the game has held steady for decades, maybe even grown with age.”

“The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again,” wrote the late A. Bartlett Giamatti before he became Commissioner of Major League Baseball, when he was still President of Yale University. It is a common theme in baseball literature, this linking of baseball to time, to history, to seasons past and present. The game “blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.”

Like Giamatti, I rely on the games “to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive,” and through its transparent simplicity, “to set the order of the day and to organize the daylight.” In quiet moments of reflection, I understand it is possible that I put too much emphasis on baseball’s importance in my life. To this day, when the Cardinals lose, I sometimes enter the darker, brooding, depressed impulses of my soul. But I understand how difficult the game is, and I feel for players in a slump. Although I often dreamed of playing professional baseball, deep down I always knew I lacked the mental toughness and skill required to succeed at higher levels.

When I attend games in person, whether at the grand cathedrals of major league baseball or at the local high school fields and parks near my home, I love to watch the action between innings, when the pitcher takes his warm-up throws, the first baseman lofts ground balls to the infielders, and the outfielders play a relaxed game of catch from 200 feet apart. The graceful rhythms of the ballplayers create a symphony of movement, baseballs flowing in multiple directions, all with a sense of linear purpose. At these moments, the game encompasses my imagination, allows me to remember the feelings and love I had for the game as a player, and reminds me of the dreams I held onto until reality and life set me straight. It is then I realize, as did Giamatti in his brilliant essay on baseball, that some
. . . were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.

Amen. Opening day has arrived. Let the season begin.