Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., March 7, 8 or 9
As Major League Baseball’s Spring Training games got underway this week, our fancies turned to this new season, when everything’s fresh, everyone’s got a chance, and possibilities seem endless.
Birds are returning, robins scurrying in the dormant grass; small-town ball diamonds’ dirt infields are smoothed out, and summer beckons with fans’ faith, hope and love ready for expression.
The renewal has the air of weddings and baby powder, promises of flowers and kites, with novelty strengthened with familiarity, like old pals and comfy shoes, bright days and balmy nights.
Illinois journalist, historian and poet Carl Sandburg wrote, “I remember the Chillicothe ballplayers grappling the Rock Island ballplayers in a 16-inning game ended by darkness. And the shoulders of the Chillicothe players were a red smoke against the sundown and the shoulders of the Rock Island players were a yellow smoke against the sundown. And the umpire's voice was hoarse calling balls and strikes and outs and the umpire's throat fought in the dust for a song.”
In March we move from fantasy games to cardboard trading cards, from winter’s Hot Stove League to Lent and denial, and then to Easter and the delight of Resurrection.
Baseball’s prospects and suspects, promising rookies and aging veterans – perhaps professional sports’ most diverse group of athletes – enjoy sunny workouts in warm climates to prepare for likely chilly Opening Days. And somewhere, shops unpack cartons of bubblegum and boxes of glove oil, bats and balls.
Novelist Thomas Wolfe (“Look Homeward, Angel,” “You Can’t Go Home Again”) wrote, “One reason I have always loved baseball so much is that it has been not merely ‘the great national game,’ but really a part of the whole weather of our lives, of the thing that is our own, of the whole fabric, the million memories of America. Almost everything I know about spring is in it — the first leaf, the jonquil, the maple tree, the small of grass upon your hands and knees, the coming into flower of April. And is there anything that can tell more about an American summer than, say, the smell of the wooden bleacher in a small-town baseball park, that resinous, sultry and exciting smell of old dry wood?”
Traditions are remembered, from the notions of team chemistry and individual character to keeping an eye on the ball and running it out, all-out. Protocols are recalled: silence during pending no-hitters, obligatory participation in bench-clearing brawls. Ideals are reconsidered – maybe even romanticized – not because the National Pastime or Americans are perfect, but because we think an American Dream remains possible.
Playwright William Saroyan (“The Time of Your Life,” “The Human Comedy”) wrote, “Baseball is caring. Player and fan alike must care, or there is no game. If there's no game, there's no pennant race and no World Series. And for all any of us know there might soon be no nation.”
Modernity sometimes updates or upends baseball and its heritage, so the Designated Hitter rule roils some fans and Sabermetrics adds slash-line confusion to our longing for straight chalk lines and past purity.
Baseball goes on.
Author and professor Kevin Kerrane (“The Art of Fact,” “Baseball Diamonds”) wrote, “After Vietnam, beyond football, in spite of Astroturf and Designated Hitters and megabucks, we keep finding the game again every time we lose it – rediscovering it not only in Major League parks, but in every corner of the country, on innumerable streets and playgrounds and sandlots, and in every corner of ourselves.”
Finally, as Gary Graf titled his book about parallels between the Bible and baseball: “And God said, ‘PLAY BALL!’ ”
[PICTURED: 26-year-old baseball card from author's time at Randy Hundley's fantasy camp -- complete with forehard bruise.]