This Thursday I’m thankful for baseball being back.
Yes, the boys of summer are back, with all 30 Major League clubs opening up their spring training camps by today. Mind you, not all players have to report to the camps in Florida and Phoenix until month’s end, when the first exhibition games will begin taking place and the first few days usually consist of little more than a handful of players – largely unproven ones eager to compete for a spot on the roster – doing a few stretches and jogging around the field. But still… baseball is back. With it, hints of a long, lovely summer ahead and flashbacks to generations of summers gone by. …
When I lived in Canada, Spring Training held a special place in my heart because it was something hopeful. Winter’s there were long and dark, but when baseball began revving up its engines, there was hope in the air that spring might find a way to arrive after all. It usually beat the first northward bound Robins back by about two weeks. I often aspired to, but never quite made it to, visiting Dunedin (a St. Petersburg suburb that’s training site to my beloved Blue Jays) in March to get a look at the year’s edition of the team up close with a big helping of warm sunshine on the side. This year, for the first time since I moved south, it has that very same appeal, beginning in a week where we’ve been housebound for days after 0-degree weather and two major snow and ice storms. The thought of a sunny afternoon watching a double play unfold is doubly appealing.
I’m unusual as a Canadian. As a small kid, I didn’t mind watching hockey and collected hockey cards like the rest of the boys in my neighborhood, but my heart was with the Boys of Summer. I loved playing ball when I had the chance (my friends who watched me drop ball after ball or run away from incoming flyballs probably didn’t love it as much when I did!), loved watching the few games that were televised back then and poured over the stats on the back of the cards I collected. It seemed the perfect game to me. It was best enjoyed in fine weather, in the sunlight on a grassy field. Lots of math, lots of strategy, lots of big personalities, the game playing itself out as it might without regards to a clock. It was like chess in that…and yes, little nerdy me played chess too! Of course, maybe that wasn’t so unlike other Canadian kids. Baseball trivia buffs are often surprised to find out how many times Toronto, Canada has had the highest attendance of any big league team for the year outdrawing baseball “meccas” like Boston, New York and St. Louis. Back then, for reasons hard to remember, I was a Cincinnati fan and when our family drove back from Florida and crossed the Ohio River, I looked out at the stadium like a Muslim approaching Mecca. That was the house of Pete Rose. Johnny Bench. Joe Morgan.
Of course, as I got a bit older, my hometown (approximately) got its own team and I was soon converted to a Blue Jays loyal. The first few years they were bad, but they played with heart and had cool caps. Then they got good and it got really exciting. When they finally got to the World Series in 1992, life in the city changed. Temporarily and for the better. Everyone was a fan. Everyone wanted to talk about the Jays. Wear a tie with the Blue Jays logo in to work and everyone was your friend. Customers who’d usually complain their order wasn’t ready on time or about a price increase were all smiles discussing that incredible glove of ‘Devo’ or ‘who knew Sprague was that good, eh!’. There were no Liberals or Conservatives, Whites or Blacks, there was just a city of baseball fans.
Of course, since 1993, there’ve been ups and downs for the Toronto fans…more down than up frankly… but a winning streak still has the magical power to unite the city. A lot has changed in the game too. Strategies have changed, computers have largely replaced old-fashioned scouts watching players and there’s less subtlety to the games… fewer bunts, fewer pitchers trying to pick off a runner, more big hitters swinging for the fences with no regard to just getting on base. But still, it’s baseball. America’s pastime.
Hope springs eternal they say, and in spring hope’s eternal for ball fans. Everyone’s in a first-place tie. There’s a long summer of games for that to change during; a long season of “Take Me Out To the Ballgame” being played, just as it was 50, 80 years ago. And after a year of Covid lockdowns, a winter of ice and snow, the idea of the familiar seems rather great.