Saturday, February 27, 2010

From Snowballs to Baseballs

The guy on Channel 3 said "2 to 4 inches, perhaps". His competitor on Channel 5 predicted "up to 6 inches in spots other than the snow-belt". And the perky woman on Channel 19, with arms waving frantically, screamed, "We could be looking at totals of up to 15 inches!" I looked outside and saw nothing but a few rogue snowflakes here and there, with predominately wet streets only. Who do you believe? Who knows. It's a sweeps-period, after all.

During this time of of year, when the house is encased in icicles and Alberta Clippers dial in like unwanted robo-calls, my meteorologically-inspired doldrums are eased somewhat by the knowledge that some 2000 miles away, amongst the purple-hued mountain ranges and cacti-dotted landscape, lies a complex where a young man named Grady Sizemore, with his surgically-repaired elbow, is piercing the warm Arizona air with exploding line-drives hammered into the velvet-green outfield. Who cares if he's only facing batting-practice pitching. Just the thought of it makes the distant reality of a thaw seem that much closer.

I love baseball. I knew early on that it was and continues to be my favorite sport. I knew it when I first made contact with a Whiffle ball in Beaver Mullane's back-yard. I knew it when my parents bought me my first Hillerich and Bradsby "Louisville Slugger", a maroon-tinged beauty whose handle I would later adorn with tape, just like Rod Carew and Freddy Lynn. And I knew it when I would stand in the outfield on those hot, sunny mornings at Lehman Field waiting for the next batter to come to the plate, holding my glove up to my face and breathing in the smell of worn leather, linseed oil, and earth. I dreaded the end of the day when we could no longer see the ball, and I lay in bed at night excited with the anticipation of being able to do it all over again the next day.

In Little League, I was a catcher, like my father. And I wasn't too shabby. My stocky build seemed to lend itself to blocking pitches in the dirt, and I found it easy to rise out of my catcher's stance and fire-off a laser-beam to the shortstop to nail someone trying to steal second-base. And like Johnny Bench, I could hit. I'm not sure if I could have hit the curve-ball later on, but during my tenure as the Harrison Paints' White Sox catcher, I delighted in drilling 2-2 fastballs into the gaps for extra bases. My personal baseball career came to an abrupt end in high school. St. Thomas Aquinas had a stellar reputation with its track and cross-country programs, and the coach, Jerry Michna, made sure that the powers-that-be knew that any existence of a baseball program would seriously deprive him of a well-stocked running crew. The school gladly complied. Years later, while living in Akron, I joined a 30-and-over men's baseball league. I was the back-up catcher and actually spent time behind the plate for a few innings. I even managed to get a couple of hits in games, although the team was full of guys who played a good deal of high school baseball. I felt pretty over-matched and, quite honestly, out of shape.

Baseball is perfect. Hit a ball where the other guy ain't. Get to a base before they get to you. And by all means, get home...and be safe about it. Sure, I respect football and basketball coaches' reverance for "clock management" ability, but the omnipresent hope of "it ain't over 'till it's over" is, quite frankly, brilliance. And it's not just the majesty of the three-run homer that wins me over. It's the hundreds of mini-dramas that play out between each and every pitch. Read Buzz Bissinger's Three Nights in August if you don't believe me. There's more strategy being played out between those two dugouts than there is in the Situation Room in the West Wing. I mean, in what other sport can a coach call time-out and actually walk on to the field to confer with his player or make a change, sometimes several times an inning? Is there another sport where a player, once removed from the game, cannot return to play? Can any other sport lay the foundation for drama like that of an appearance by someone as seemingly superficial as a pinch hitter?

There are those who contend that baseball is just...boring. Sure, there are times while sitting directly in the sun on a humid day in July at Busch Stadium during a 9-2 game in the 6th inning when some journeyman has fouled off 8 pitches in a row that one wishes that the action could be, you know, sped up a bit. But I contend that when the clock hits 7:05 on one of those clear, warm evenings at Canal Park, the National Anthem has been sung, I've settled into my seat with my first sip of a Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold, and the Akron Aeros have run onto the field, well, that's a kind of bliss that can be matched by very few things.

I have to spend this Saturday morning shoveling snow. Our steps and walkways need done, and I might wander across the street and help out the elderly woman across the street, too. I'm not sure how much more snow we'll get today because, well, I haven't decided what channel I'll watch yet. What I do know is that while I'm grooving out a path for Maggie to be able to do what she needs to do, my favorite team's center-fielder is grooving batting-practice pitches into the far-reaches of the complex there in Goodyear, Arizona, in anticipation of the start of next week's spring-training games. The thaw can't be far off.

-30-

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