From where I sit I can see, in the front yard, the mounds of graying snow that have somehow survived more than a week of shoveling and melting; on the floor beside my desk rests the portable heater that makes my office habitable in the depths of foulest winter; in her bed beneath a sheltering table, the dog curls in protective warmth. Yet for all of that, from where I sit it might as well be spring.
Surely the explanation for this requires no elaborate exegesis. Surely the rest of the world has looked out its front window and discerned, through the snow and the ice and the gloom, the bud of the crocus and the breast of the robin. Surely everyone knows that on Friday last a group of gentlemen of varying ages and descriptions, not to mention temperaments, assembled on a soggy expanse of grass in the City of Miami and, in so doing, hastened by more than a month the scheduled arrival of the vernal equinox.
Their names, for those who have not yet figured out whereof we speak, are Flanagan and Dempsey and Martinez and Hendricks and Altobelli--to name only five from a cast of dozens. Theirs are names far more musical to me than those of the people with whose doings I am ordinarily concerned: Styron and Bellow and Malamud and Updike and Oates. This is because they are the pitchers, catchers and coaches of the Baltimore Orioles, and by getting about their appointed business down there in the Land of the Sun they have brought the first signs of thaw to at least one wintry heart.
It happens, as the title of that wonderful old movie put it, every spring, and the miracle is that over all the years the joy and wonder of it never fade. This is my 44th spring, but with the first thwack of ball and glove it becomes my first; once again, we begin at the beginning. The slate is clean, the cup is full, the day is new; everything is promise and possibility. Jim Palmer can win 25 games, Eddie Murray can hit 50 homers, Cal Ripken can drive in 125 runs, the Birds can win the World Series; in the bright glow of spring training's first days, anything can happen.
There is nothing else in American life quite like this annual ritual of renewal and hope. Its only rival is Labor Day, which in fact if not in name is the first day of the American New Year; but it is autumn that follows Labor Day and autumn, for all its beauty, is a time of dying. Spring, which arrives with these early days of baseball, is a time of birth and beginning; and it is baseball, more than anything else, that to right-thinking Americans means spring.
Certainly there is no ritual elsewhere in sport even remotely comparable. What does the opening of the professional football camps mean? Absolutely nothing, except that the weather is dreadfully hot and the end of summer seems light years in the distance. If anyone except the players themselves takes note when the basketball and hockey training sessions begin, I am unaware of it; as for any larger meanings, the mere thought is ludicrous. Golf? Spring is already a fact when the Masters rolls around. Tennis? On the professional level, it can't even be called "sport" any more.
But in the last days of February, when Americans turn to the sports pages and discover photographs of rookies trying on new uniforms and veterans flexing old muscles, a vast panoply of associations and implications comes immediately to mind. The light at the end of the tunnel is not merely visible but, of a sudden, attainable: We know at last that the weather will become warmer, the heating bills will begin to diminish, the trees will once more turn green. At exactly the hour when February seems longest, when the landscape seems to have been stained an indelible and dispiriting shade of brown, when short-sleeved shirts and lemonade seem frivolous fantasies, when tempers shorten and humors sour--at exactly the moment when we need it most, along comes baseball to tell us that, believe it or not, Betty Smith was right: Tomorrow will be better.
But of course only baseball can tell us this. Other sports have their virtues, but they are neither as virtuous nor as multifarious as baseball's. Not merely is it, for player and spectator alike, the most interesting and pleasurable game yet devised by man; it is also the quintessentially American game--indeed, it is difficult to think of any activity of any sort in which a greater number of uniquely American characteristics can be located--and it contains enough symbolic and metaphoric overtones to satisfy even the most insatiable litterateurs.
Unfortunately, those litterateurs have of late been taking baseball up on the possibilities it offers, and with lamentable results. In the past decade or so baseball has been the subject of oceans of prose--and poetry--the preciousness, inanity and self-indulgence of which defy description. A game that is itself utterly without pretense has been lathered over with stunningly overwrought writing; inspired, presumably, by the brilliant (and inimitable) work of Roger Angell, a veritable host of fourth-rate talents has seized on the "beauty" and (saints preserve us) "poetry" of the game to come forth with rhapsodies that inspire nothing except nausea.
But baseball marches serenely on, oblivious to these peccadilloes--bigger than those who come to bury it, bigger than those who come to praise it. I cannot imagine what life would be like without baseball, nor can I imagine how it would be not to love baseball. There are, to be sure, other things to be done in life from the last days of February until the last days of October, but is any of them of greater consequence than baseball, does any of them offer more sublime and mysterious pleasures than baseball, is any of them at once more comfortingly predictable and more exhilaratingly surprising than baseball?
Of course not. What is almost impossible to comprehend, in fact, is why the powers that be require us to suffer four full months of the year without baseball, and why it is that we tolerate this deprivation. But such harsh speculation can now be banished; it is time for baseball and thus it is time for spring. Glory be!