One More Spring in Arizona
“I left old friend and now I’m back again
Please say you missed me since I went away” Garrison Keillor, “One More Spring in Minnesota”
The Cactus League has returned to Phoenix. Each year, like the Firebird of its namesake, the desert town in the Valley of the Sun arises out of the ashes of winter, and baseball, the purest of all sports, is resurrected on its playing fields. No phrase this side of “amen” commands more joy than the simple cry of “Play Ball !” There is no smell in the universe which is more welcoming than the orange blossoms of Arizona as they mix with the truly spiritual sound of bats cracking against balls, hurled by young men at 95 miles per hour from a hill exactly sixty feet and six inches away.
When I first came to Phoenix in 1988 I was thirty five years old. I had lived half a lifetime, but had never felt the gentle breeze off of the Sonoran Desert and did not know that the Arizona spring was greater than any other spring, anywhere. But I know it now. I have known it for 21 years. Yet each time I return, I thank God for letting me feel it one more time. Each year, when I leave after four days, I know a little of the sadness of Adam and Eve as they headed out, east of Eden. But unlike Adam and Eve, I have been able to return , absolute proof (as if any was needed) that God is a baseball fan.
Every year when I go to Arizona, people ask me what teams I like to see. The truth is that I don’t care. I can’t remember, three weeks after I saw the games, which teams I saw. But I can still feel the sun, I can see the palm trees swaying against the blue sky and hear the chatter of 7500 people, all sitting in my general vicinity, speaking with the greatest happiness about a baseball game that does not matter. A game that is not recorded, whose specifics will probably never be mentioned again. Spring Training baseball is not a competition, it is a sport of the spirit. It is the closest approximation America has ever reached toward the mystery of Zen. It is the only time that you can truly “be the game”. It is the place where the mind can finally grasp all that is important in sport, and deny and shut out all that is ugly. A place devoid of “winners” and “losers” and all of the baggage those terms entail for the human species. What is important in the spring is the movement on a pitch, not whether it crosses the plate, the swing of the bat, not whether it makes contact and the beauty of the slide, whether or not the runner is safe.
Yes, it is spiritual, for those who seek it. I learned long ago that many do not seek it. For them, it is a meaningless three hours at a small ball park in some out of the way Phoenix suburb. That’s O.K. too, Thoreau was right, not everyone hears the tune of the same drummer. But for those of us who do, the trip back to the desert can refresh us as little else can. Less than 100 hours now before I’m there. It is well with my soul.