Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 13, 2020

The Surest Sign Of Spring

February mornings come slowly in northern New England. The sky seems permanently overcast, and whether it is the solid slate gray that foretells a fresh snowfall, or the mottled milky tone that heralds a front just passing through, the dome overhead rebuffs the rising winter sun’s feeble beams, ensuring that night yields only grudgingly to day. Long after the clock has declared morning’s arrival, the gloomy half-light scarcely illuminates a barren winter landscape so monochromatic as to make pointless the long wait for daylight. The browns of bare ground and grays of dirty, slowly melting snowbanks blend together. Lifeless trees with desiccated branches pointing to the clouds offer no relief from the colorless scene.

We are deep in the dead season, midway between December’s solstice and March’s equinox. Images of sun splashed summer days, of blue skies and green grass, shimmer in the mind’s eye, but the cold and the dark have grown so familiar that we are no longer certain if the mental pictures are memories or mere imaginings. Will winter ever end?

But we are also at the season’s inflection point, that hinge moment when with just the right nudge forward, we can begin an accelerating journey toward warmth, and light, and hope. Just as weariness is poised to engulf our very souls amid darkness and doubt, the day arrives, and the spark is struck. On both coasts of Florida and at ten ballparks that ring Phoenix like gemstones on a crown, the boys of summer are gathering in response to the call that is, for baseball fans, every year’s absolute promise that spring will arrive.

At Camelback Ranch in the Valley of the Sun, and at Steinbrenner Field just east of Tampa International Airport, the Dodgers and Yankees assemble as the early favorites to meet in next autumn’s World Series, on the other side of sports’ longest season. Two generations of fans have grown from infancy to adulthood since these two venerable franchises, once cross-town rivals in the Gotham of an earlier age, squared off in the Fall Classic three times in the space of five years, with New York winning in 1977 and 1978 before Los Angeles prevailed in 1981.

Seven years later the Dodgers were back in the Series, upsetting the heavily favored A’s in five games. That showdown is remembered for Kirk Gibson’s dramatic walk-off home run that gave Los Angeles Game 1, and for the foolish fan who left early, the rear lights of his departing car visible in the distant parking lot as Gibson’s shot sails into the right field seats. That was also the last time the Dodgers celebrated a title, and the long wait since has left the franchise’s fans hungry for a return to glory. Yankee fans have had better fortune, but their team went through the entirety of the last decade without a single World Series appearance, a veritable lifetime of futility given expectations in the Bronx.

Yet so much lies between the opening of training camp and a season-ending parade to celebrate a championship that being named a favorite in February is an honorific of precious little value. Players on both teams know that, just as they know that their brethren on the twenty-eight other clubs and all the fans of those franchises are prepared to concede nothing here at the beginning. Two hundred miles by car across the Florida peninsula from the Yankees spring training complex, members of the Washington Nationals gather still basking in the glow of last season. From twelve games below .500 in late May, the Nats fought back game by game, win by win, finishing the fight with victory over the Astros in an improbable World Series in which the home team failed to win a single game. Washington stands ready to defend its crown while also serving as a symbol of hope to every franchise that will, at some point in the coming season, be dismissed by the pundits.

Hope is in ample supply as camps open, in these first days hope is everywhere. If a realistic assessment of a team’s chances holds that a title is beyond reach, there is still the possibility of marked improvement over the previous campaign. Over the years more than a few franchises have gone from woeful to playoff participant in a single season, which is enough to give even fans of lesser clubs like the Padres or Orioles, the Marlins or Tigers, something to cling to for now.

The slow unwinding of the regular season, from April’s chilly nights through the heat of August and beyond, will slay many of those hopes. Baseball is a game of managed failure, a sport in which hitting safely one time in three tries makes for a fine day’s work; but in baseball as in life, failure is not always managed well. The sedate rhythms of the game’s calendar will also provide ample time for discussion of the challenges facing the sport. The cheating scandal that dominated offseason headlines will not magically be forgotten just because training camps have opened. The outcome of the increasingly testy struggle between Major League Baseball and the scores of local operations that make up the minor league system remains uncertain. It is a fight that will determine the future of many franchises which have brought joy to fans far removed from the bright lights and high prices of big league ballparks. Expanding the playoffs, a new collective bargaining agreement, pace of play – all these issues and more will take their turn at the center of discussion and debate.

Through it all fans will still come out to cheer when their heroes take the field. The cry of “play ball” will ring out, the leadoff hitter will step into the batter’s box, the pitcher will toe the rubber, and the games will go on. As has been the case in all the decades since the promulgation of the Knickerbocker Rules in 1845, predictions of the sport’s imminent demise fail to grasp the extent to which baseball is woven into the American psyche. The Great Game returns, at once constant and ever-changing. The first directive of a new season lights the flame of hope in the heart of every fan, signaling the certain coming of spring, the time of renewal and unlimited possibility. We know that winter is beaten, when pitchers and catchers report!

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