Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 17, 2010

Four Little Words.

Just four simple little words.  But what incredible magic they work.  They come annually at, for northern climes, the loneliest part of winter.  We are past the dead of it, but still in the midst of it.  The pretty white winter snow has long since turned grey, dusty, and dank.  And we know that if a new layer arrives, which it certainly will; it will only postpone the time when we can finally see grass.  It is a cold, deadly, and darkly depressing time. 

Other sports have lost their attraction.  Football has had its annual season-ending extravaganza.  This year the result resurrected a city.  Really?  I think Paul Tagliabue did that, when he essentially prohibited the Saints’ owner from pulling up stakes for Oklahoma after Katrina.  And for his good work, the appointed electors will not make him a finalist for the NFL Hall of Fame.  Shameful.

The basketball and hockey seasons have entered their dead zones, when it has generally become clear which teams will make the playoffs and which will not.  Our sport will have its own such time, but for now that is months and months away.  For now, we have only those four magical words.

They are, without doubt, the ultimate harbingers of spring.  Their utterance reminds us that the day will come when the snow will melt, temperatures will at long last warm and the bracken grass will turn green again and everything will seem possible.  Because that is the most important part of the magic.  In thirty cities across North America, and in countless other places; from rural farms to urban penthouses to overseas locales, wherever fans may have migrated; in the beginning, everything is possible. 

Fans of the Washington team that lost 103 games last year will believe that on the strength of a number one draft choice, a phenom pitcher some say is unlike any other, they can be a team to be reckoned with.  As unlikely as that may be, if the team improves to respectability, is that not a measure of success?  For in the sport with the longest season, success is often measured over years. 

My friends who root for the local nine that fell nine games short in last year’s regular season and then got swept in the first round of the playoffs will believe that with the help of their off-season acquisitions they can win their third championship in this still young century.  Perhaps they can.  And all across the land, on this day, it is the same.  Hope and belief abound.  But it is in the long, long season to come that we will find out.

Because finding out is of course why we play the games.  And in this singular sport, we play, and play, and play again.  It is the longest season, stretching from the still short and warming days of April, through the long, sparkling, sunlit days of summer, and not concluding until the chill of yet another dead season is hard upon us.  Over that longest season much can and will take place.  Some fans will weep as heroes fall to injury.  Others will rejoice as a young player heretofore unsung finds his game, or as an old veteran thought to be past his prime finds his game again.  Certain winners will lose.  Teams thought lost will find themselves.  And for every fan, whatever the result, there will be the ebb and flow of the longest season.  Winning streaks.  Horray!  Losing streaks.  Oh my god!  Multiple home run games.  Yes!  Batting slumps.  Oh no!  A no hitter.  Classic!  Didn’t make it out of the second inning.  Bummer!

For myself, I will of course make my way to the Bronx on multiple occasions to see my own nine, who begin the new year with the hardest task of all; repeating as world champions.  It has not been done in this still young century.  It has not been done since, well, since my team did at the end of the last century.  And though I harbor no illusions about the difficulty of succeeding, like every other fan, I begin with hope and the belief that all is possible.  And at the very least, what a delicious hardest task it is, saying what it does about the season past.

We all believe.  Because spring; warming, raw, unfettered spring, is all about belief.  And so we latch on to those four precious words, knowing how much they mean.  They work their annual magic on us. 

Ultimately of course, for most the magic will fail.  Baseball mirrors life; it is, after all, the game in which a batter who succeeds one time in three is a hero.  But even for those who ultimately fail badly, through the course of the longest season there will likely be more than enough days of unexpected triumph to bring the fan back yet again.  But such future considerations do not matter now.

Because at the beginning, at the very, very beginning, on this the first day, we are all equal.  And those four simple words call to us, in the darkest of times, to wrench the frozen vise-grip of winter from our hearts; and to instead believe again, in the unending promise of a new season.  For that is what is now at hand, just over the near horizon; another ever-renewing season of the Great Game, heralded by the magic effect of four simple words: pitchers and catchers report.

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