Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Three beautiful words

I think it was that hard luck right-hander Charlie Brown who first said that the four most beautiful words in the English language are “Pitchers and catchers report”. Tomorrow in Kissimmee, Florida, the pitchers and catchers of my old team will report for the 47th Spring Training in the team’s history, each of which I have followed closely, and the baseball season for me will have begun.

 

When I first started following baseball in 1960, there had been 55 World Series played. I remember looking at that list and thinking how impossibly long ago those first World Series were. Since then, 46 more have been played (one was  skipped) since then  and I can’t imagine thinking that the 1960 World Series was that long ago. It is still so vivid in my memory (that s.o.b. Mazeroski). I only think about the time passing when I see the GRANDCHILD of someone I saw play in my youth, out there on the field, living proof that I am ageing (when does ageing become aged ?)

 

For the last 23 Springs, friend Broyles and I have been attending Spring Training. What started out as a fan’s “trip of a lifetime” became an annual occurrence, somewhat to the chagrin of my wife, who, although always invited, does not attend. Spring Training baseball has pretty much ruined me for the regular game. The weather is nearly always perfect, you are very close to the action, and just about every person you meet is relaxed and on vacation from some God forsaken place up north where it has been snowing continuously for three months. My favorite smell of all is the smell of the Orange Blossoms in Scottsdale, Arizona as you walk to the ballpark there. I have often wondered about getting some aroma therapy for myself, with that smell, whenever I felt tense.

 

Spring training has changed in the last 23 years. When we first started out, the ballparks were all old and small. Few people went to the games. You could walk up to the window the day of the game and buy a good seat. Today, sellouts are quite common, you have to have your tickets a  month in advance, and even then, you won’t get the best seats. They have separated the players to a large extent from the fans. In the old parks they had to wander past you on the way to the game. Manny Mota would ride his bike around the grounds, in uniform, fungo bat in his basket. But Spring Training is big business now, it is inconceivable that you could take a nap, lying  under a tree just a few feet from play, as I did in my first Spring training game at Al Lopez Field in Tampa (both that field that that tree are long gone).No games are played at fenceless Huggins-Stengel Field in St. Pete these days and the beautifully sculpted ballpark at Chandler is no more, although the Ostrich fest still exits there.

 

But the glass is still more than half full. The sun still shines and the orange groves still blossom. The games are still played in stadiums which are built to watch baseball and not simply to contain the maximum amount of people. The peanuts are still roasted and salted and the beer is still cold. They still sing take me out to the ballgame in the middle of the 7th inning at Hoho Kam Park in Mesa, and still encourage you to sing it so that “Harry can hear you”. It’s not like it was when Harry lead us in song, but it’s still pretty nice. The great old guys we used to see, Harry Cary, Gene Autry, Jimmie Reese (who roomed with Babe Ruth’s suitcase) are gone, but I can call them up in my imagination anytime I want to. I can see Tony Perez’s grand slam  and the not yet disgraced Pete Rose as vividly as I did that March day in 1986 when I first walked into the ballpark in Tampa. I can see Sammy Sosa’s homerun over the scoreboard and Ronny “Woo-Woo” Wick go crazy over it. I can see the old California Angels team celebrate after they pitched a collective no-hitter. I can see the old airplane hangars at Joker Merchant Park in Lakeland where the pitching machines never got tired of serving up batting practice. I  can taste the muffins at Lee’s On the Lake in Lakeland and the Tilapia at Biospehere,Arizona.And I can hear Officer Fife apologizing for the fact that the  wreck that totaled my rent car interfered with my getting over to the old ballpark in Tucson. I can also see the look on the face of the Budget agent as I pulled up in the wrecker, tossed the keys to her and said, “I’ll need another one.”

 

So tomorrow is the day, “Pitchers and catchers report”. The season slowly changes and we ease into the pennant races, ever so nonchalantly. Put me in coach, I’m ready to play.

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