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Game of Eternal Hope Approaches

Last week, major league baseball teams started spring training. To most older people--particularly those of us who were brought up in cold climates--that means a time of renewal. Of rebirth. Of a new chance to start from scratch in pursuit of a goal. And of a lot of other things, too.

Late February and March were always the nadir of winter in the Midwest, where I grew up and lived for many years. By that time we were thoroughly sick of cold weather and looking desperately for signs that it might be ending soon. That desire elevated Pennsylvania’s modest groundhog and his shadow to star proportions. We were quite prepared to believe that myth--but only, of course, if it turned out the right way.

But if the groundhog and his shadow were undependable, baseball wasn’t. No matter how deep the snow in the driveway, baseball teams went to spring training the last week in February. And they said to us firmly and unflinchingly that warm weather couldn’t be far behind. So powerful was this feeling that I devoured spring training notes in the newspaper every morning and still do--those pathetically optimistic assessments of comebacks that will fizzle out in the sands of Yuma or rookies who will be back in Quad Cities by April.

Those feelings and habits have carried over for me just as strongly to California, even though spring is perpetual and with the Angels, disappointment is chronic. If pushing winter off stage is no longer a carrot, renewal is. And, I suspect, always will be.

Each February, baseball tells us that we have a chance to start over. That the disappointments and injuries--physical and emotional--and foul-ups and mistakes and wrongheadedness of the previous year can be scrubbed. The new season is a fresh slate on which all sorts of miracles may be written. Hope is endemic. Anything is possible.

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The game itself is structured that way. A football team down by four touchdowns in the fourth quarter is going to lose. But a baseball team, badly beaten in the ninth inning, still has a chance to come back. That cliche is implanted in the memory of anyone who watched the fifth game of the playoff series between the Red Sox and Angels two years ago. The Angels had the champagne cooling, the Anaheim police were in the home team dugout to protect the players from celebrators pouring out of the stands, and the World Series banners were being unfurled. Then, with two out in the ninth inning, Boston pulled the game out and went on to win the playoff.

The lesson is implicit. Baseball tells us that we always have a shot, right up to the very end.

It also teaches us balance and symmetry. The baseball diamond is a miraculous invention. The distance between bases is precisely enough to set up a contest between the base runner and the catcher. The base can be stolen but only if the move is executed perfectly. The fielders are spaced so they can make spectacular catches or the batter can thread the ball between them. The parameters are clear and clean, but within them, all sorts of things can happen--and do.

Baseball is being intellectualized a lot these days. People like George Will and Roger Kahn are writing profound pieces about the game--and I suppose, in a less esoteric way, that is what I have been doing here. The problem is that the heart of the game must not be lost in the intellectualizing.

The greatest sense of peace I find on Earth is sitting alone in the cheap seats of a major league ballpark--preferably in the afternoon. It has been thus since I was a small boy. I can still remember vividly hitchhiking 300 miles with a high school friend to see a double-header between the Cincinnati Reds and the St. Louis Cardinals of Paul and Dizzy Dean and Pepper Martin. We spent much of the night in rural gas stations trying to persuade truck drivers to give us a ride, and when we finally got to the ballpark an hour before the game, the warm breezes and feeling of peace put me instantly to sleep, and I dozed on and off through most of the afternoon. But every moment of it was splendid.

That feeling is still in my gizzard today. I will get down to Palm Springs in a few weeks and watch the Angels in the confines of that wonderfully intimate little ballpark. There will be a lot of vans and RVs in the parking lot and scores of gray-headed optimists such as me on deck chairs outside the right and left field fences. And there will be a sense of intimacy with the ballplayers that is never quite matched in the enormous stadiums in which they play their regular-season games.

We will all be full of optimism and hope and a sense of renewal and--yes--immortality. We know this is going to happen next spring, and the spring after that, and somehow we have piped into that continuity. Spring training simply wouldn’t be complete without us.


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