With all apologies to Christmas, this really is my favorite time of the year, and it becomes more so each year. I can't really put a finger on it, other than there being some vague warm fuzzy that comes over me when I first hear the words "pitchers and catchers report." Nothing can dispel the biting cold of the waning winter than news of the upcoming baseball season, or highlights on the evening news of those first games from Florida. The heart quickens a bit and the first Monday in April brings about the same joyous anticipation that December 25 did when I was a small child.
Each year I look forward to it more than the year before, in spite of the disappointments that have come during so many of the recent seasons. The older I get the more I cherish this game and all that it means. But what all does it mean; what sets this game apart from the others?
Maybe part of it is the time of the year it's played in. Football is fine, but it's not a game that we associate with fine weather like we do baseball. When baseball starts, the trees are budding, flowers are blooming, the grass is getting green again, birds are singing again, and we are storing away such items as wool hats, scarves, gloves, and snow shovels. The world is waking up from its winter slumber and shining forth in all its glory, and part of that waking process is the start of baseball. Baseball is as much a harbinger of spring as the song of that bird outside your window in the morning or the distant hum of a lawnmower from down the street. You can't imagine one without the other, baseball without spring or spring without baseball. The two are too interwoven to ever be separated.
Maybe it's the constancy of the game. People talk all the time about how baseball has changed over the years, but honestly I don't see it. Yes, the economics of the game has changed, free agency and constant player movement being more prevalent today than in the past. People complain about the prima donna athletes of today and how they don't measure up to the greats of the past, about the money they make and how they seem more distant from the fans than they used to be. But through all that, the game hasn't changed. Other sports have changed over the years, but not baseball. Basketball now has a three point shot and a shot clock, football has made subtle rules changes over the years, hockey has changed as well. Those other sports might have different variations of the rules depending on the part of the world they are played. Baseball is different. There are still three outs to a half inning, nine innings to a game, players still walk on four balls or strike out on three strikes, and there is still that blessed absence of a clock. Outs are still recorded in the same way they have been for years. It's constant. I know that the game has changed much since the early days, but most of those changes took place so long ago that few of us can remember the game being played any differently than it is now. The game might be different off the field, but once the players step onto the field, the anthem is sung, and the pitcher lets fly with the first pitch, it is the same timeless game I have loved since my youth. That is a comfort to me as I become more of a curmudgeon with the passing of time.
I think that I take more comfort each year in the aspects of the game that don't change. I don't pay as much attention to what Player X is doing off the field. I don't really care as long as he's not breaking any laws or embarassing my city too much. When I watch or listen to a game, I am transported to a timeless place that hasn't changed since my childhood, a place where a well turned double play, a perfectly executed hit and run, a key steal, or a majestic home run are awe inspiring events that when interspersed with those 27 minor moments of angst, make up that brief respite from life we call a baseball game. And a brief respite it is. Many a time have a been so absorbed in a game that I will look up and realize that it's already the sixth inning and the game will be over soon. The feeling is akin to the thought of approaching bedtime when I was a child. I want the Reds to win, but win or lose the end of a game is always kind of bittersweet because it's over and I have to come back to the real world and deal with real issues that I have shoved aside for the last three hours.
There are so many other things that baseball is what it is to me, and many of those things cannot be described with words. To someone who has never experienced it, you cannot fully describe a summer afternoon on the back porch with a beverage in your hand, meat on the grill, and the sounds of the ballgame coming out of the radio. You take the radio away, and it's like turning off the soundtrack in a movie. Something's missing. Maybe I look back over my life at all of the changes that I have been through and the one constant backdrop to everything has been baseball. Through all those years it has always been there. When my parents divorced, the house burned down, another house burned down, the river flooded, I got married, put on weight, took off weight, put it back on again, changed careers, baseball has always been there. When everything else has changed, baseball has remained right there where it has always been, bringing so many moments of joy, disappointment, elation, and frustration. So at this time of year when nature awakens, baseball awakens as well, and in the hearts of its fans there awakens that small hope, sometimes against all evidence, that maybe, just maybe, this could be the year.