I love playing this game and every spring training feels like the first.
Rickey Henderson (b. 1958) Hall of Fame outfielder
It happens every spring
Winter holds the North Country in its icy grip this February morning, but in Arizona and Florida the sun is shining warmly on ball parks where Major League Baseball’s annual spring training will soon begin. The first week of the training season still ignites my passion for the game and a longing to be part of it.
I know the saying is trite and overused, but I love the game. I loved playing it, and I love watching it almost as much. So you will understand my frustration when I tell you that the Cincinnati Reds Baseball Club failed to respond to my letter offering my services as a utility infielder – for the forty-seventh consecutive year.
Admittedly, I am no longer at the peak of my baseball playing ability, but I am not asking for a place in the starting line-up, only a chance to play an inning or two in some games in this spring’s Cactus League. I even graciously offered to take the locker farthest from the showers in the clubhouse at the Reds’ Goodyear Field training facility in Arizona.
To date, just one week before training camp opens, I have received no reply. According to the Major League Baseball website all invitations to prospective players have been sent, so it appears that I will be snubbed once again. This rejection from a team that I have loyally followed for more than 50 years, a team that has not been in the World Series since 1990, a team that finished fourth in the five-team Central Division of the National League last year with a record of 76-86, barely ahead of the lowly and hapless Chicago Cubs (73-89).
Although I am not contending I could carry the Reds to the World Series, I think I could do as well as a number of their current players in several of their 86 losses last season. Spot playing as a utility infielder, that is. I no longer have the strength and stamina to play every day, not even in spring training games.
I am ready to go on a moment’s notice, since I still have my bat (Henry Aaron model, 33-inch, 32-ounce) and my infielder’s glove (Bobby Richardson model) stashed in a corner of my garage clubhouse. And I assure you I would be among the most enthusiastic and passionate rookies invited to spring training. As I said, I love the game, and looking back 50 years I especially loved spring training.
Even at the high school level, I remember spring training as a pageant of prowess and promise. It was a time of grueling but joyful work, a mix of artistic education and craftsman training, raw athletic ability being sharpened by a thousand repetitive strokes on the whetstone of technique. I thrilled at “game situation drills” that were mental disciple lessons teaching us to anticipate and react in a thousand scenarios. All in preparation for “playing” the games of the regular season.
To watch a day of major league spring training at the ball park is to witness a hundred small dramas performed every hour within the confines of the iconic American stage. Baseball is a theatrical play that is real, tightly defined but unscripted, grounded on the panoply of teamwork and communal spirit but exalting the individual, the hero.
Throw, catch, hit, run. What could be more simple? And what could be more difficult than learning and executing the skills of this most complicated and intricate field game? This game in which success depends totally on merit and performance and accomplishment. The only game in which you are assured of full opportunity: three strikes, four balls, nine innings, twenty-seven outs. No one can run out the clock on you, no one can deny you your fair chance to win.
Baseball is the game of the long season, 162 games, that tests not only the team’s talent but also its stability and endurance. It is the game that measures a team’s ability to regroup after a loss and to remain grounded after a win: each year the best team will lose a third of its games, and the worst team with win a third of its games. The very best baseball clubs win less than sixty percent of their games over the course of the decades.
The rules of baseball, though voluminous, are precise and objective. The ball is fair or foul, the pitch is a ball or a strike, the base runner is out or safe. And yet the game has some peculiarities. It is the only game in which the defending team is in possession of the ball and controls the pace of the action. Although every baseball infield is exactly alike – 90 feet between the bases, 60 feet six inches from the pitcher’s rubber to the front edge of home plate, plus a dozen other prescribed dimensions – every baseball park is unique in its configuration: different distances to the outfield fences, varying amounts of space between the field of play’s fair territory and the spectator stands, differently shaped and bordered outfields, different screens, fences, bullpens, dugout locations.
It is the game of countless possibilities, always fluid, always in flux, never completely predictable. The game in which success depends on a team’s ability to work in disciplined coordination when it encounters unanticipated circumstances. The game that is the ultimate test of teamwork.
Baseball has been described as the game with “long periods of boredom interrupted by bursts of frantic activity.” Funny, but inaccurate. The periods of “boredom” in baseball are the periods of anticipation, tactical maneuver, preparation, and speculation. An intricate mental game of bluff and chance and deception played by batter and base runners vs. pitcher and catcher and fielders. As a spectator, observing and trying to predict who will win this mental game, and how they will do it, is almost as exciting as the action itself. The game is dull only to the dull of mind.
Ah, if only I could do it all again, performing in the half-dome of the batting cage that is the spring training’s Globe Theater, featured actor in the drama of batting practice. The pistol-shot crack of wood-on-horsehide, the line drive into left field, the ball bouncing one short hop before it hits the outfield fence, an unknown coach behind the cage telling another, “Get this guy’s name when he gets out of there.”
No, once upon a time never comes again. But it would be sweet to remember those times, sitting in the bleachers at Cactus League spring training, watching the opening scenes of the season’s drama. Maybe next year I will be there, whether or not I get a tryout invitation.