Sacramento is finally showing those of us who live here some real spring-like weather this week. And it’s about time.
Talk about a long, cold, wet winter, we have definitely had one, with rain totals now well above the average for a full year as April settles in. Not that we had it any worse than the rest of the country. Every time I looked, they were digging out of another blizzard back east. It was just nasty everywhere in the continental forty-eight. At one point, only Florida did not have freezing temperatures on a given day.
But last week, we got real sunshine and warming temperatures, and the timing couldn’t be more perfect, with little league games now in full swing and the big leaguers having now taken their first official swings of the new season as well.
Yes, I’m talking baseball, as I do every year at just about this time. Of all the sports, it’s the one that comes closest to being a real elixir for what ails us. For openers, it brings back memories (the good ones) of our youth, when being carefree was the norm and being worried meant, at worst, that you had a test the next day.
And in baseball, we lived out all our fantasies. We got to be the next Mickey Mantle, or, in my case, the next Duke Snider (who just died last month, for those who may have missed the news). The start of the baseball season also meant that summer vacation would not be far behind, and summer vacations were the ultimate carefree experience. Or, at least, that’s what we remember.
In any event, for me, baseball is still the most perfect of all the games of a sporting variety that people play. It may also be the most unique. It requires a team, but not a clock. It is measured in runs, instead of points. You score with your body, not with the ball. And within the big game of the nine players on each team, there is, with every pitch, the little game of a pitcher against a batter.
Baseball is also the only game where every player has stats, because every player is responsible for doing something that can be (and is) measured mathematically.
Batters have batting averages; pitchers have earned run averages, fielders have fielding percentages, and the lists of statistics for each player can literally fill the back of a baseball card, thus to be studied into the deep hours of the night after Mom and Dad have ordered you to turn out your lights and go to sleep.
Baseball fostered my love of numbers. I could project how many home runs Gil Hodges would hit if I could learn how to work with fractions, and so I learned. I could figure out Ted Williams’ batting average without waiting for the Sunday paper (when all the averages were listed in the sports section) if I could learn my long division, and so I learned.
It also fostered my love of reading. The games were all reported in great detail in the morning and evening newspapers, and every writer had a different thing to say about them. And so I read the words of great writers like Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, Dick Young, Roger Kahn and Leonard Koppett. And I learned how using certain words in certain ways made the writing more interesting and more enjoyable to read.
And so, through baseball, I learned to write, or at least learned that writing could be fun.
And if baseball does remind us of the things we want to remember about our youth, it also gives us a feeling of the potential for things to get better. Unlike the other sports, there’s always another game tomorrow in baseball. In the big leagues, they play just about every day for six months, so if your team loses today, just wait until tomorrow. And every game presents its own opportunity for greatness, be it the great at bat, the great fielding play, the great stolen base, the great strikeout.
People who find baseball boring are boring people. Baseball fans are fascinating people.
Am I getting a little carried away, waxing a little too poetic?
Okay. Let me tell you some things about baseball I don’t like.
I don’t like the designated hitter. I don’t like expanded playoffs. I don’t like interleague play. I don’t like free agency. I don’t like the low strike zone. I don’t like instant replay. I don’t like umps with short tempers. I don’t like players with big egos. I don’t like the Yankees. I don’t like World Series games at night in frigid weather in late October. I don’t like paying $150 for a field level seat at a game. I don’t like fat cat owners. I don’t like Bud Selig.
But even with all those things I don’t like, I still look forward to the start of the new season. It’s the little boy in me. I can’t help but get excited at the thought of another great pennant race, of another record breaking individual performance, of another great defensive play, of another game-winning home run, of another terrific pitching duel, of another pivotal decision by a manager to pinch hit for a pitcher (or not to pinch hit for him), to play the infield in with the tying run on third (or play back for a double play and risk the tying run will score if they don’t make it), to call for a pitch out and have the runner thrown out trying to steal as a result (or not call for the pitch out and have him steal and then score the winning run on a base hit).
These are the things that keep me young. They remind me that life is full of mystery and enchantment, and that even with wars and tsunamis and radiation-leaking nuclear reactors and with bills to pay and health concerns and fights with the kids and arguments with the wife, life is good.
And it’s really good when they start playing baseball every spring.