Spring training begins this week. The Seattle Mariners, incredibly, have already reported; they open the season in Japan this year and so they figured they'd better get a jump on things. For the rest of the league, the musical lyricality of the phrase "pitchers and catchers report" trips across the tongue this weekend. The Twins show up Saturday, the first workout for pitchers and catchers is Sunday, and the rest of the team gets in a few days later.
It's sunny where I am, as I write this. It's sunny and the snow has disappeared and it's getting light out when I wake up and the sun is still above the horizon when I leave work. It's kind of impossible for me not to sit down and make a list about baseball, about good baseball things. And as with so many things... it begins with the Cubs.1. The Cubs still play in the afternoons. Other teams do too, on Sundays and on Wednesdays or Thursdays when they want to get out of town and get on a plane to the next city, but the Cubs still do it pretty regularly. And in the afternoons, maybe you have a little TV in the office that the boss let you hook up a while ago, or maybe you have a subscription that lets you watch the game on your computer. You turn on the game and there's Wrigley, same as it was when you were a kid and you were home sick from school. Rich folks in the stands, drunk college kids putting the make on each other in the bleachers. The Cubs are losing; the Cubs are always losing. It's 3-1 in the fourth or 5-2 in the sixth and the Cubs starter is beginning to tire, and the Astros or the Dodgers have runners on second and third with one out. But the sun's out in Chicago and the wind's not blowing in and he comes to the set and here's the 2-1. Outside, ball three. Cut to the dugout and the manager's on the phone to the bullpen. Same as it ever was.
2. If I was the commissioner of baseball, I'd make sure that there was a baseball game on in the afternoons every weekday between April and September. Nationwide television and free on the internet. It doesn't matter who's playing. America should be allowed to glance over and see how the game's going.
3. Townball still exists. Tiny towns that don't have road signs, that Google Maps can't find, have baseball teams in the summertime. They're filled with nineteen-year-old college kids who are home for the summer, and with forty-two-year-old men who love baseball too much to subject themselves to the slow death of beer-league softball. You can drive across Minnesota and you'll find Saturday afternoon games, folks chewing tobacco and sunflower seeds in the stands and a concession stand with a grill out back, two dollars for a hot dog, three for a bratwurst, all proceeds to the youth group. The guy on the mound never left town after school, runs his dad's business now; he played some in college but he came back home. He's thirty-eight but he still throws strikes. He doesn't want to lob a ball the size of a grapefruit and then duck out of the way of a line drive. He wants to move you off the plate and try to get you to swing at a slider. He doesn't want four outfielders and a 22-20 final score. He wants to play baseball.
4. College baseball teams don't have managers. They have a head coach. And sometimes the coach comes out of the dugout during an at-bat and talks to the hitter, and you are reminded that there is a difference between a boss and a teacher, and that while he's dressed like a major-leaguer and acts like a major-leaguer, the kid at the plate is twenty years old. He's on his first serious girlfriend. He's studying mechanical engineering and having trouble with it. He's never had a mechanic tell him that it's gonna be twelve hundred bucks, he's never had a doctor explain anything to him in terms of percentages, but right now he's going to learn something, something about hitting the ball to the right side of the infield. We'll see what he does with that information.
5. You can go to a major-league baseball game now and get something good to eat at a (all things considered) reasonable price. Twenty years ago ballpark food was designed to make you feel like a penitent, buying a terrible hot dog to absolve you for your wrongs. You had four choices and it was priced like you were in the airport. Now you can sit in the stands and eat a Cuban sandwich - a good Cuban sandwich - for about the same price as you'd pay at the bar across the street.
6. Though it's in the song, Cracker Jack is still pretty awful.
7. Economists like to talk about the entertainment dollar as a transient thing. They point out that, if a sporting event left town, your sporting dollar wouldn't go unspent. And while that's true, I think it's important that we remember you can't drink a beer and boo the umpire at a movie.
8. I don't want to say too much about this one, both because it seems uncouth to talk about it and because I don't want to give away too much. I'll just say this: no female has ever not looked good in a Twins T-shirt and a baseball cap.
9. The phrase "routine grounder," just as a phrase, is enough to put you to sleep, but as anyone who's ever fielded a ground ball knows, there's nothing easy about it. The ball has seams and if it bounces off one, it bounces funny. The ball spins. It hits the grass or the dirt or the join between the two. And even if you manage to pick it up you've got to throw the ball to first base in a split-second. Fielding a grounder and retiring the runner feels like an accomplishment, and if you watch major-league baseball it happens so boringly that imagining ground balls is a great way to fall asleep at night. There's something great about dullness of the exceptional.
10. They have pitching machines for kid baseball now, these little spring-loaded mini-catapults that you load up and step on a little foot pedal and the machine soft-tosses the ball over the plate. These are a great idea. They've replaced the coach who's trying to desperately to get his soft-tossing right. This is good. It's also kind of sad, because though I don't have any kids, most of what I understand about fatherhood can be encapsulated by standing in the middle of a dusty infield, trying to hit your kid's bat with the ball.
11. Spring training coverage in the paper usually is headlined "The day at camp," like a newsletter from Camp Nokahoma. And most of the coverage is anecdotes about practical jokes pulled, or other funny stuff happening down at spring training. The players laugh during spring training. During the season they stare grimly out of dugouts, like what you or I must look like at our jobs, but during the spring they're having fun. It's a reminder of what Willie Stargell said, that the man says play ball, not work ball.
12. I'm guessing you've complained about your local announcers. I have, too. I've made plenty of jokes about how they broadcast things. But if I'm imagining summertime and mosquitoes and T-ball and mowing the lawn and my dad working in the garage, I'll be damned if I can imagine it without hearing Herb Carneal.
13. In the same vein: Vin Scully.
14. I don't think I've ever heard somebody say, "You know, my Dad loved baseball, but I really never got into it."
15. There is a place for you, in baseball. In other sports you have to be fast, or tall, or huge, or all three, but if you're not, baseball has room for you, especially if you can throw strikes. Baseball has room for tall guys and for short ones, for skinny ones and for fat ones. It has a place for a guy like Jim Thome, who can throw a sledgehammer over a barn but runs like he's securely fastened to a particularly immobile building, and it has a place for a guy like Ben Revere, who's faster than the wind but can hardly lift a baseball above his head. There's room for Joe Mauer, the impossibly good-looking natural athlete, and for Corey Koskie, who never caught a ground ball that he hadn't worn off his chest fifty times during a winter workout. There's room for Joel Zumaya, who throws smoke, and for R.A. Dickey, who throws butterflies. The game has pitchers who run fifty miles a week and pitchers who'd die from running fifty yards; it has hitters who spend all year in the cage and hitters who never swing a bat before the season begins. It really is just the best.