In the spring, a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of … baseball.
Yeah, that’s pretty much a butchering of “Locksley Hall” by poet Alfred Lord Tennyson. And in the crusts and crumbs that are the memory of a long ago “19th Century English Poetry” course, I seem to recall that line ending with something about “love” rather than baseball.
But were Tennyson alive today, I warrant he’d leave love in his back pocket (ok, not entirely, but for a time), if the one-time British poet laureate turned his attention to us former colonials and our particular – if not peculiar – rites of spring.
Now, I’m not knocking love, per se, but in the world of prose and poetry I recon it’s been thoroughly vetted, um, I mean plumbed, poked and probed.
Leaving love to Shelley, Keats and Blake for the moment, ‘tis now baseball season, as much a part of the American springtime experience as are pickup trucks laden with mulch, yard sales, wondering how those damned wild onions took over the garden and fed-up spouses tossing up a geyser of papers while screeching, “Screw this! I’m going to H&R Block!”
It’s the long-desired culmination of the anticipation for baseball yet to come, the warm thoughts of sunny days, peanuts, hot dogs and cold beer, offering an imagined alternative to winter’s interminable nights, black ice and bomb cyclone blizzards.
Now I’ve been around the block more than a few times and until this year I’d never heard of a “bomb cyclone.” What gives? Well, at least the meteorologists aren’t droning on about “polar vortexes” like they did a few years back.
How many of us have heard someone, somewhere, with an accurate calendar and an optimistic outlook, offer, “Hey, it’s only (add number here) days until pitchers and catchers report!” Translation: “If spring training is nigh, spring, with its soft, gentler climes, is about to overtake and overcome the frigid, frosty depths of January!”
Sure, most baseball fans talk like that. Why do you ask?
It’s just like the release of the much-awaited Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition each February, when guys think, “Wow, look at those beautiful beaches, exotic locales and warm, wonderful tropical weather! That has to mean the new baseball season is just around the corner!”
On a less optimistic note, talk of baseball’s spring training could also mean, “I am soooooo @#$% tired of this @#$% winter!”
Count me among that company.
Baseball’s calendar connection to things vernal might explain, in part, its legacy as a “romantic” sport. (No. This has nothing to do with Shelley, Keats or Blake.)
Films such as “The Natural,” “Field of Dreams,” “The Pride of the Yankees,” “A League of Their Own” and “The Sandlot” all tap into deep-rooted emotions fully detached from on-base percentages or earned run averages.
Take the flick “City Slickers” for example. Anyone recall the dialogue?
Put your hands down; that was a rhetorical question.
It’s about three close friends, all New Yorkers, vacationing out west on a dude ranch. During a cattle drive, Billy Crystal, clip-clopping along on horseback with his buds, is asked to describe one of the best days of his life. He speaks wistfully of seeing his first baseball game at Yankee Stadium with his dad, when only seven.
He waxes nostalgic about coming out of the tunnel under the stands to the seats and field and “how green the grass was, the brown dirt… We had a black and white TV, so this was the first game I saw in color.”
And he witnessed the great Mickey Mantle as he hit one into the stands, or, as he tells it, “knocked one out.”
I’d bet a hot dog and a bag of peanuts – Don’t laugh. At Yankee Stadium today that would set you back a tidy sum – that over the years, hundreds of thousands of kids enjoyed similar existential experiences in The Bronx. It’s existential if the Yanks are your team, you can’t stay up past nine, you have no idea what the word ‘existential’ means and you sure as Hades can’t spell it.
All those modifiers applied to me and brother Dennis when our dad took us to our first Yankees game. I was 10. He was eight. It wasn’t just a stadium to us, it was a cathedral, baseball’s holy of holies, and we wuz livin’ the good life in box seats on the first base side, not far from the Yankees dugout. That’s prime real estate.
Oh, how our souls soared! Ok, that’s a bit much, but still, it was right up there with Christmas morning, only it wasn’t 5 a.m. and pitch-black outside and we didn’t have to postpone our revelry to go to Mass. Call me a heathen, but heading out to church after tearing into a multitude of gifts on a day you’ve anxiously anticipated for many months is a major buzzkill.
Midnight mass on Christmas Eve? Fuhgeddaboudit.
Anyhoo, after finding our seats, which probably equal a mortgage payment today, we scampered down to the edge of the field before the sun set for that night’s game and watched with youthful wonder as the storied and legendary Yankees stepped out of the dugout for pre-game warmups.
Oh, how our hearts soared! Ok, sorry. Still, that’s a memory time can never erode. And then, onto the field stepped “The Mick.” No, not some guy named Seamus or O’Shaughnessy, I’m talkin’ Mickey Mantle. You know, the successor to Ruth and DiMaggio? Hall of Famer? Twenty-time All Star? Seven World Series championships? “Knocked one out” 536 times, pre-steroids? Heck, one of his rookie year baseball cards sold for over half a million bucks.
I came equipped with brother Kevin’s Kodak Instamatic, and as I spotted big Number 7 crossing the infield I yelled, “Hey, Mickey!” He stopped, turned and looked at me! No lie! I had the camera to my eye and was squeezing the shutter button with all my might, but no click, nothing. He turned back, then trotted out to center field.
Looking down at the camera, it was clear my finger was not on the shutter release, but on the camera body edge, just millimeters away.
Oh, how my heart sank! Yeah, thought I could get away with that one.
I learned some hard lessons that day. First, that baseball will break your heart. Yeah, sure, of course I was too young to get that deep. Yet the moment served up early proof that life is, in fact, unfair.
The other lesson learned the hard way that day was that Kodak Flashcubes could not illuminate an outfielder standing more than 500 feet away, but instead provided multiple images of the back of the very reflective bald head of the guy one row up.
But spring is here, bringing daffodils and day games. The Boys of Summer have returned from Florida and Arizona, and with them peanuts, hot dogs and beer. Probably really cold beer.
And so… Hold on. April games don’t mean a damn thing. It’s a 162-game season, and nothing’s really on the line until after the All-Star Game, and that’s not until July. Crap.
Ah, but the Stanley Cup playoffs are in full swing! Eh, but neither the Rangers nor the Islanders are playing.
Well, those @#$% wild onions aren’t gonna pull themselves.
Tim Kelly is a former congressional press secretary and award-winning reporter, editor, columnist, and photographer. He has lived on the North Fork for 30 years. For his mid-life crisis, he became a bagpiper.