Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 4, 2010

The Great Game Returns

And so it begins. The practice sessions in Florida and Arizona have concluded. General Managers and field bosses have made the hard final choices to winnow each team’s roster to the requisite twenty-five players. Those choices have meant that many young players now wait in minor league camp, preparing to report to Scranton or Pawtucket, to Durham or Toledo, to Birmingham or Corpus Christi, so to begin their season somewhere in the vast minor league farm system. While naturally disappointed not to have made the major league squad, they at least remain in the game and retain hope for the future. For some aging veterans hoping for one more shot at glory, those same final cuts have meant an outright release. They have packed their bags and headed home; hoping for a mid-season phone call when injury or disappointing play makes them suddenly needed again. But somewhere in the back of the mind a small, weary voice begins to ask the unavoidable question, is a career in the great game finally at an end?

For the 750 lucky winners of a big league roster spot, it’s a charter jet flight to the big league city that is host for the first series of the year. Half will of course begin play in the comfort of their home stadium, before a full house of tens of thousands of adoring and noisy fans. The other half must play in a lion’s den for the first few games. But gradually, over the course of the first ten days, all thirty squads will at last get the chance to showcase their talent in front of home fans, culminating a week from Tuesday, when in the Bronx on the east coast and at Chavez Ravine on the west, the Yankees and Dodgers become the last two teams to enjoy the exquisite sweetness of the home opener.

In thirty major league ballparks in twenty-eight major league cities, the longest season in sports is about to begin anew. It is a time when sports pages and websites are rife with pundits predictions for which eight squads will be left standing at the end; privileged to play on into the post-season. But while it is not so hard to pick a number of teams that will most assuredly not be among the final eight, the reality is that picking those that will is nothing more than a child’s guessing game. The competition is too strong among too many nines. The absurdity of this pre-season prediction nonsense was on full display at the CNN/SI website. Thirteen pundits made their choices for the three division champions, wild-card winner, and eventual league champion for both the American and National Leagues. In the American League, two of the thirteen picked the Minnesota Twins to be headed to the World Series. But twice as many pundits didn’t even pick the Twins to make it to the post-season. In the Senior Circuit it was the Colorado Rockies who got the same feast or famine treatment. Three experts had the Rockies in the World Series, while again twice as many couldn’t find room for them on their post-season dance card.

As if close competition weren’t enough to render predictions meaningless, sports’ longest season ensures it. Eighty-one times in each of those ballparks two teams will take the field. Before all is decided, 2,430 baseball games will be played. So much can happen over such a long stretch; and so much will.

Part of the greatness of the game comes from the inherent contrast between its rigidity and its individuality at each of its venues. The bases have been ninety feet apart for more than a century and a half; the rubber sixty feet six inches from home plate for 115 years. But in Boston’s left field there lurks a Green Monster, while down the right field line in the Bronx there sits an inviting short porch, and in dead center in Houston fielders must climb a hill and deal with a flagpole that is in play. Every ballpark has its own idiosyncrasies, so that the game is the same and yet different at every venue. That’s why more than a few fans spend part of each season traveling to foreign parks, and not always just to follow the play of their own local nine. The true fan knows that each park has its own special appeal. This year, the Twins move into a new outdoor Stadium, leaving Tampa as the only remaining site of full-time indoor baseball, and the only place where the game is played on plastic. Of course for every new park an old one is turned over to history. Gone now are the old Yankee Stadium, home to 26 championships, and gone too is Shea, home of the ’86 miracle. Those two, along with hulking Tiger Stadium and Comiskey Park and a host of others, have joined an earlier generation of venues like Shibe Park and the Baker Bowl as memories.

Whether it is at brand new Target Field or venerable Wrigley, it is at last time to begin again. It has been a few years now since the demands of the television gods turned Opening Day into Opening Night. This year play starts at the oldest field, Fenway Park, with a game between the two fiercest rivals in the sport. Yet whoever wins tonight and by whatever score, the record of recent years suggests that when the long season has come to an end, the record between these two foes will be close to, if not exactly even. But the past is not always prologue. Which is why predict what one will, assume what one wants, we still must play the games. And so we will.

And so it begins. Winter is vanquished. The hearts of fans all across North America are lifted. Our heroes take the field. The great game’s primal order is given: Play Ball!

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