It’s not the end of winter. I live in Wyoming–the third week of February is nothing like the end of winter. And it’s still dark early enough. So what is this light my title speaks of?
The return of baseball. Opening Day is still a little more than a month away, a bit longer than that for Opening Day in the States, but today was the first proper day of Spring Training. The rest of the teams join their pitchers and catchers in Florida and Arizona and other sun-kissed places, assembling with new and old teammates. There are, of course, the dramatic (and frankly tired) stories regarding last year’s scandals and heartbreaks; I’m a few hours of coverage deep in the season, and I’ve already heard enough about Manny and more than enough about Rallybeers/Chickengate in Boston. Those kinds of narratives are inevitable.
But they’re certainly not everything, and they’re certainly not where my interests lie. Nor, even, where the anchors’ and sports talk show personalities’ interests lie. That much is visible. It’s that, for those of us who love the sport, baseball is back. It’s in the childlike joy that’s been percolating in the breasts and brains of baseball fans since November, or, if you gave up on the playoffs because your team didn’t make it or you simply decided that there was no way to top the last day of the season, since the end of September. And maybe that’s a little hackneyed–“childlike joy”–but I can’t think of anything else that really gets close. Last week, The Classical ran a piece by Matthew Callan about Gary Carter that really holds up that sense of joy as not something just pertaining to the fans, but to the players themselves. And that’s sometimes strange to think about for career players, and it certainly doesn’t hold true for everyone, all professional athletes. Major League Baseball is a profession, and there is an emphasis on the professional. I’m a Phillies fan, and my husband and I are still trying to decide if Chase Utley is people or a baseball-playing robot. My jury’s still out; Utley’s a blank wall for fans like me who love the colorful personalities. And there are all the jokes about Roy Halladay being a baseball-bot, but that’s derived from the mechanically indefatigable nature of his arm, from his near-legendary work ethic. Halladay doesn’t need to sleep and to rest like normal mortals. But looking at Roy Halladay’s face when he’s pitching–that’s pure humanity. That is sheer drive and a little bit of rage and more focus than I can think of applying to anything. He might be super-human, but he’s definitely human because his prowess all about desire. It’s all about want.
And that’s what this week is about, too, for fans: being perched on the edge of desire. The season looms, the narratives start stitching themselves together. And we wait. We wait and watch and hope: how will it happen? How will this season reveal itself? What are the stories in the wings? This week (and during the whole off-season), the analysts and the announcers are working their predictions for those stories. They gather the data, they crunch the numbers, they spin scenarios from sunflower seed husks and leather oil. And I watch, and I listen, and I agree and disagree and none of us really knows anything and we all know that and it doesn’t stop us. The pleasure is in the conjecture; the pleasure is in the wanting to know. Even if it ends in heartbreak. We want to know how it’s going to end.
Last October, Gary Smith wrote a piece for SI called “We’re In Baseball Heaven.” As an English instructor and a writer of fiction and a member of the editorial staff for a damn fine literary journal, I should probably not admit that this article was the thing I loved most of all of the things I read last year. I won’t recap the whole thing; I’ll just say it’s well worth the time to read the whole thing, particularly if you (like me) love the Phillies. If not, you’re probably still able to imagine a time when it felt like everything was coming together for your team, how light each step became. Even as you knew it was silly because you still had to go to work, your job still sucked, you still had to pay rent. Nothing changes, but everything changes.
Smith’s piece captured everything Phillies fans were hoping for about the 2011 season: that perfect storm of pitching, the near-invincible feeling that accompanied looking at the record. But it didn’t pan out, of course. It was just four days after that article went up, October 7, that the dream season ended. And that stung. I won’t lie: I sulked. And then I had to watch the rest of the season feeling that sense of despair, the we should have been there, using that first person collective as though I had anything to do with it. But I was still watching because those were the last games of the season, the last breath of summer before the long, baseball-less winter. Any baseball is better than no baseball. And so I watched every last minute of the season, even when it felt like sandpapering the insides of my elbows.
But why the burning need to know? There’s a thirty to one chance that your season’s going to end in heartbreak. I know those aren’t weighted odds (if you like the Yankees, historically, your odds are better than most other fans’), and yes, at the start of every season, some of us have a better all-over shot at the World Series, but there are no guarantees. Our October proved that.
So, why? This is why. In Smith’s piece, he asked a number of Philadelphians to talk about the 2011 team. Bryan Dilworth hit it:
“And it all just keeps getting better and better,” he gushes. “When the Roy Oswalt thing goes bad, the Vance Worley thing appears in its place. Everyone here loooooves Worley. He’s fearless, and we won—what?—14 straight games the kid started? That’s crazy. The dread we used to walk around with, it’s gone for 75 percent of this city. And now Hunter Pence. He’s perfect for this team and for this town. He just wants everything so badly. He’s like watching a baby giraffe run. This has to be heaven. An angel just appeared here—Hunter Pence.”
This is that paragraph of childlike joy. It’s in how Worley and Pence play. It’s in how these players–not just these two, but the players we love for so many reasons. The way Gary Carter played: not perfectly, but passionately. Wanting everything so badly: desire. We share that much.
I get tired, sometimes, of overblown sports metaphors, even as I’m desperately guilty of it, too. (As a writer, I spend most of the time being tired of myself. Goes with the territory.) But baseball is, at the end of the day, a game, I keep reminding myself. Just a game. If I see one more comparison of sports to war, I may scream. Because sport isn’t war. Ask people who’ve been in wars. They’ll clear it up for anyone who was confused. But there is a magnetism in sports, in following a team, and I may go my entire life without fully understanding it in a way that I can properly articulate (though, of course, I’ll keep trying–that’s what we do).
In thinking about this, I turn again, as I often do, to Annie Dillard. She’s not talking (much) about baseball in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, but she says this:
“The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”
She’s speaking most particularly to observing the natural world clearly, closely, sharply. But it holds true for me, here, perched on the start of a new baseball season: good things are going to happen. And I don’t just mean victories (though I’m lying if I think I’m going to be happy with the Phillies not making the playoffs); I mean every one of those triumphs of spirit that takes place on the field. And those things certainly don’t confine themselves to professional athletics–everywhere we turn, there are quiet marvels taking place. I encourage you to look.
But spring training, the emergent baseball season–this is just one place to see those things, and I plan to be there.