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Here’s an upfront promise: There will be no use today of that four-letter S-word. Not a chance.
And I mean the one that rhymes with grow.
I can avow that because of a phone call I received from an old buddy in Florida the other day, a call that warmed my heart, brought sunshine to my foreboding sky and probably melted a little of that white precipitation beneath my feet.
“Cheer up,” he said, “pitchers and catchers report next week.”
Those words are to some of us the surest sign that spring is near, that life will again return to the season of unexpurgated hope and birth and – yes – sunshine.
For as sure as that tawny-breasted robin shows up in your yard, professional baseball players will arrive in Florida and Arizona for that ritual of starting another wonderfully slow and cerebral dance through the summer months.
Now let me not be naïve. Some of you don’t like baseball, don’t appreciate Field of Dreams, can‘t calculate an earned-run-average or recite the infield fly rule. You don’t care about any of that.
You find the game too slow, too complex, too benign and non-violent perhaps. And, for those of you whose life with sports is relevant only because you can gamble, baseball makes that difficult.
Yet, baseball is the purest and simplest game of all, a most magical paring of individual talents in a competition that cannot be played by one person or typically not dominated by one (pitchers with perfect games, notwithstanding).
You can bow down to basketball, fawn over football and even embrace the personal gratification of golf – I do, too – but baseball alone ascribes history and brings out the poet in many.
When have you ever heard a lovely song about any sport but baseball? Setting aside team fight songs and spoofs, your answer generally is never.
But I bet you know every word to Take Me Out To The Ballgame.
Many artists have written and recorded love songs to their favorite players, their beloved teams and their frustrations with their personal lack of talent.
Vin Scully, the elegant poet laureate of the Dodgers, once described the mano-a-mano persona of baseball like this: ”In football, you can take a knee. In basketball you can hold the ball and let the time run out. But in baseball you always have to throw the next pitch.”
So now it’s spring, time to throw the sport’s first pitch. For some, that seasonal transition can be difficult.
A baseball lover growing up on a farm in Kentucky had to be creative in the springs of his youth if he wanted to be in shape for his sport, for his season. There were no batting cages, no tees and darned few rudimentary pitching machines.
Like the games we played as kids before sanctioned leagues became baseball’s lifeblood, our workouts had to be makeshift and small and built around whatever curveballs the weather would throw us.
Some of us were blessed with spacious haylofts, in which there existed opportunities for games of catch and even, in some cases, the option of batting practice, if the smack of baseball on wood or off concrete blocks didn’t startle you, the potential for broken glass didn’t deter you and the absence of sufficient light didn’t frighten you.
You simply tried to make do. Wiffle ball may have challenged us, but it didn’t fulfill us. A well-hit ball didn’t really go anywhere. And there were no softer, indoor balls available then. We used the real thing.
But we persevered, sometimes two of us, sometimes four or five of us and occasionally just one of us, flinging a ball at a concrete wall to practice our aim and our ability to handle a carom across that hard, uneven wood, sort of infield practice without the bat and dirt.
Our arms could strengthen and our reactions improve even if our skills weren’t really sharpened, even as our hunger for the game and its renewal grew more acute.
We would read and hear those magical reports of the season of baseball’s first pitch, at spring training, from familiar outposts and datelines where little stadiums and formerly small villages in Florida and Arizona become the sweet alarm clocks for hibernating fans everywhere.
If you love baseball and have never had a chance to visit spring training, you are missing the greatest appetizer ever served at a sports banquet. There’s no better way to get a taste of the best of what the sport has to offer.
If you could go see your favorite team or perhaps do a tour of a few ballparks in a small area, you would see the game’s greatest players in the world in an intimate and familiar environment. The older the stadium is, the better.
In the early 1980s in Orlando – before my beloved Braves moved their spring home to Disney’s fabulous ballpark – a fan could be spoiled by working just 10 minutes from where the Minnesota Twins had their camp.
These were the budding Twins who won a World Series in 1987, in their formative years, and a fan could take a late lunch, arrive at the park for the first pitch at 1:15 and see all the regulars play before having to get back to the office.
Who won or lost seldom mattered. This was about baseball, about knowing and loving the game and embracing its ebb and flow for another year.
If you haven’t experienced that, give it a try. Even if you aren’t a fan, you can enjoy the sunshine, the refreshments and perhaps rekindle a moment in your life that you long had forgotten.
And though the weather can be rainy and perhaps even chilly, I promise you that the only things on the ground that will be white will be chalk dust and the baseballs themselves.