Monday, March 8, 2010

THE WORK OF SPRING

A rite occurs on the Right Coast that I have learned of from family members who are part of the Red Sox Nation. On or about the 15th of February every year they offer a toast to the sign of the coming spring, no matter that there is 38 inches of snow on the ground and the grinding cold of daily life still saps their strength. It is “Truck Day.” It is celebrated by the most zealous and reverential off Boston Red Sox fans for it is the surest sign that spring will come. It is the day 40-foot semis leave Fenway Park in Boston for Fort Meyer, Florida with the paraphernalia needed to conduct spring training. Thus, as it is inevitable that Sox baseball will come, they toast the spring. No groundhogs needed, just seven or eight diesels pulling away from “The Fen” is enough for them know.

There is much rain in Arizona this year and cold in the camps in Florida. Yesterday it was 55 and raining in the Phoenix Arizona area, yet the rites of the baseball spring continue there. There is grousing among the coaches and managers that the proper work will not be accomplished in this short season of evaluation. The players worry of minor yet nagging injuries—pulled muscles and sore arms--due to the lingering wet fields and cold weather which has replaced the warmth and thus the hope of spring. It is a grim March there for the fans as well, those from Milwaukee and Chicago and Cleveland, who have fled the frozen tundra to find only a stiff breeze and low 60’s or rain showers and 50’s in a place they usually find 80’s not uncommon.

The players have been reporting since late February and began there 31 game exhibition seasons on Thursday and Friday. So the long days and nights of the season have begun. It is time to show that one has retained the skill of last year, or that one has improved enough to go to what the players call “The Show.” Or that there is still enough gas left in the tank for one more year as a role player, the veteran to provide cohesiveness, to teach attitude and patience. He who will keep his head as all around him lose theirs as it were.

The newspapers, having space now that the Olympics are over, begin to carry small stories. One does not have to go to the back pages and the tiny agate type to find baseball news. These are intriguing times for those who have a passion for the journey from March when all have reported through sometime in early November when this grind will end with two teams in a stadium somewhere trying to become the next World Series Champions. The Commissioner dearly hopes it will not be in a cold weather city since it will occur nearer Thanksgiving this year than Labor Day. Part of what makes the game worth following as fans, is the hope the Minnesota Twins and Milwaukee Brewers will make the trip just to see what baseball can be like at night, in Minnesota and Wisconsin, in November.

The usual drama will play out this spring. As I prepare to return to what I hope by then will be a warm Valley of the Sun I read with more interest the doings of the great, the once great, and the never will be great players that have assembled. If one can count on anything, there will be surprises as always. There will be a rookie who amazes everyone though he shouldn’t who will sustain it through the year. There will be another who will be back riding a bus in the minors when he returns to a conscious state and his natural playing level sometime very early in May but who, at this moment, is being labeled "can't miss" by some ink stained wretch in the sporting press. There will be a veteran left for dead at the end of last season by one team who will rise like a phoenix with another to amaze us once more. Sadly, there will also be the everyday, consistent, perhaps former All-Star player of many years who will find that the Navy SEAL’s motto, “Yesterday was the last good day of your life” now applies to him. He will stumble and fail at this game he has played since his boyhood. Its most basic tenets will elude him in all ways he has found so natural for so long. It will be hard to watch this man-child of thirty something years of age become confused, frustrated, and by August sitting at the end of the bench wondering what happened, knowing that a “fresh start” next spring with this team is out of the question. In the argot of the game, you can put a fork in him, he’s done. It is over and he is neither adult enough to understand the reasons why nor what to do with the rest of his life.

Just as a skilled aerobatic pilot can make an inside loop look easy, these men in the strange pants and a leather glove on one hand make this seem that way too. It isn’t. There are 27 major league teams. Each have a 40 man roster of which 25 wear the uniform of the major league club on a given day and six of them are usually pitchers. Do the math. 675 men make The Show and only 8 players start for each team everyday, the rest, the two hundred that will be in each camp this spring find another place to play or something else to do the rest of their lives. That is a tough pyramid to climb in any profession and even harder one to stay on top of once you have.

Some who have been there a long time refuse to agree that it is time to step down. There seem to be more of them this year. They are once fine players and fiercely proud men who refuse to accept that they are closer to forty than twenty years old. Their skills have eroded and they move a step slower, see the ball as a hitter too late. They are forced to move on. A manager can’t afford to carry one of the 25 that hits all his home runs in batting practice at 5 o'clock when the game is at 7. He needs everyday players, so they release these men because they can’t do it anymore. It’s a business decision not personal. Some don’t see it that way so they find a place to sign on as a “non-roster” invitee to the rites of spring. They talk of trying to “catch on”, and say words like “a better fit”, or “be a good man in the clubhouse.” They accept the humiliation of a minor league contract with a slim chance to make the team. I will see some of these too, and either be gladdened by their return or saddened by the certain knowledge that by Opening Day in April, they will be home watching it as I will.

These moments are coming in this world barely understood, but so enjoyed by the fanatics that follow it. It is a world without pity, yet with moments that are as touching as a love story. There are memories forever of those who do it so well you watch in awe. Errors in effort are not tolerated, less than perfection is expected but not admired. It is a game where a thirty three percent success rate with a bat in your hand will get you enshrined in the Hall of Fame. To do that, your heart has to work 100 percent of the time and your reflexes must be quick enough to see it, understand it, and hit it in less than two seconds. That is the difference between the legends and the others, the ones called “great” and the ones called “useful.”

So spring is here, despite the rain of yesterday and the blustery winds and cool temperatures of today. There are men at work again in the Valley of the Sun. Very soon, it will be time to go and see as many as I can and enjoy once again the balletic rituals, the triumphs, and sadness of the time.