Over 300 men arrive early in the morning chill. After donning the same odd three quarter length pants and stirrup socks they have worn since they were eight years old, they fan out on the acres of green lawns and clay soil to stretch and practice their trade. The sun is gentle this early. There is no dew, it is too dry for that, but these impeccably manicured lawns are still wet from the watering they received before dawn. It will be very hot by noon.
It seems an idyllic place on the surface. Men from 19 to 40 seem to be playing out their childhood when in fact they are in an unforgiving competition for a job. There are only 900 of them in the United States. The stress is enormous, yet hidden below the veneer of routine, exercise, humor, and a professional face.
There is a time--a season-- for every purpose. Yet these men will ply their trade far beyond the time they should have put away the things of their childhood, and will practice it, hone it, and exert great effort to learn the skills of their craft. They will do it until they are in their late thirties if they are fortunate. Some will do it for a great deal of money. Most are astonishingly good at it and will make it look quite easy. We accept that. They are there for our enjoyment, and as a distraction from the pressure of our often precarious and frightening real lives.
In 14 other places in this warm and pleasant valley, far from the rigors of the dying winter, there are 300 similar men doing the same this early March morning. In the warmth of the Florida sun, two thousand miles away, there are 15 more places engaging in this same ritual, this employment seeking. Overall, there are nearly 6000 men seeking to be chosen to be one of the 900. They are at work now. They are, despite our best efforts to believe otherwise, working very hard to be chosen to compete at that highest of levels. If one is lucky, in these few weeks of February and March, you get to watch them try.
We mistakenly believe that the operative verb here is “to play.” It is work. Physical and mental labor that lasts eight to ten hours a day. It is agility, speed, strength, and most of all a something defined as “talent.” We have no idea how they do it because very few of us ever had “the talent.” Even those who have “it” are astounded at the effort it takes day in and day out, year in and year out to maintain the level of perfection that they reach. It is incomprehensible since it seems such a simple thing. We have done it, most of us, on a casual level. We know the basics, the rudimentary elements of the skills they have, so we assume it is easy. After all, it is only a game.
For everyone that makes it to the highest level, thousands fail. Some are good enough to do it at a lower level and make a living at it. Those are the ones “good enough to dream.” They will never succeed fully at what they love. For many, it is good enough to do what they love and be paid for it. They will endure the bus rides, the nights in bad motels, take out food, bad fields, lights, and few fans until at thirty, the magic age in the eyes of the people who decide such things, change them from a “prospect” to a “has been” or a “never will.” Then those who have failed in this grueling competition will find something else to do with their lives. Their dream will be over at an age when most of us are just beginning to find our own. Some live with that and move on, glad for the time they had in this extended adolescence. Others are wholly unprepared to face life as an adult.
These men make those choices just as we make choices. Yet without this special skill, this talent, we do not defer it, we are generally not found wanting in what we believed to be our life’s work and our dreams at so early an age. Many who do not succeed here, or are injured trying, are so retarded in development that success in any measure will never come. There is sadness in that.
Here in the Valley of the Sun every year they are sorted, judged, and selected either to continue up the ladder or to drop down a rung or learn they are to leave the work they so love and next year they will have to buy a ticket to watch others try to be what they could not.
It is cruel and cold, but it is a business. It is called sport, yet it is how good you are and how you fit among a collection of those just as good that decides whether you are one of the few that are chosen again. That is a constant. You must prove that you belong again, that there is no one better, that someone younger has not surpassed your skill, and that you are still relevant to the concept of the team which is winning, making money, and winning again.
There are moments in these six weeks that soften the harshness of this message. On a sunny Saturday afternoon in March in a place called Surprise, a young man comes to bat who never has before at this level. There are teammates on every base. With a confidence belying his 22 years and his inexperience, he takes the measure of a veteran pitcher and hits a ball as far as he has likely hit it before. It is a moment frozen in time. For him, it may never happen again. Its beauty is enhanced by the fact that his Father is coaching in the opposing dugout and his Mother is in the stands watching the game. He has done this since he was six years old in Little League. Yet it has never meant so much to him as today. He will never forget how the crowd roared and afterward the children handed him caps, baseballs, and programs to scrawl his name. Perhaps he will one day prove that he is more than just good enough to dream, as in that instant on this day. Perhaps not.
It is a timeless moment. It is why they come to try. It is why we watch. It is a memory for all.