February 14, 2011
Pitchers and Catchers Day
“Every year, back comes Spring, with nasty little birds yapping their fool heads off and the ground all mucked up with plants.” —Dorothy Parker
It's pitchers and catchers Monday, and by happy calendrical coincidence it's also Valentine's Day as well. Naturally, the gutters are choked with slush, at least here in Chicago, lending something physical to suggest the inevitable tortured metaphors about thawing and renewal, eternity and change, commitment and professions of love. Love in its splendor, love of baseball, love of someone special. Love of being able to feel all of your toes. You know, the basics.
But this Monday's magic seems muted somehow. Pitchers and catchers is today, but we already know about Florida rains last week and earlier workouts. In some way, the ritual of this “voluntary reporting date for pitchers, catchers, and injured players” day seems less about a specific date than hanging the label on a Monday in the general vicinity, because obviously a number of people volunteered to show up before the voluntary reporting date. Volunteerism's a lovely thing, but it loses its romantic notion of self-sacrifice and commitment to one's craft when the voluntary part of the program becomes a thin fiction. It's the unofficial official mandatory reporting date for a huge numbeer of players—anyone who trundles into camp as late as February 26th runs the risk of being seen as some sort of slacker.
Since nobody really knows much that's new as far as what's going to come out of Florida or Arizona, now or on February 26th, we have to settle for the set-piece dramas of the season. Already, we're being bombarded (or firing off broadsides of our own, naturally) with stories about what Albert Pujols has not done, which if you really want to get technical, might present a fairly long list. As the reigning, temporary recipient of the “best player in the game” label, we accept that he's capable of all sorts of things. Albert Pujols has not saved the whales, but he might, if he bent his mind to the task. He could sign, or not sign, or he could talk about not signing, or not talk about not signing, or say that he'd love to sign, but only if it makes him happy, because if he's happy the Cardinals are happy, but they need to make him happy. Or else he won't sign.
Rather than be frightened by this sign of an impending Birdocalypse, it's worth remembering that this racket of non-storiffic inaction is old hat for the Cardinals. Last spring, there was all that anguished yammering about how new hitting coach Mark McGwire was going to wreck the entirety of Western Civilization by showing up for work. Then he did exactly that, show up for work that is, and promptly went about his business, and Western Civilization's wreck, not to be discouraged from its own delayed imminence, lurched on towards its next symbolic disaster... Ron Washington's "our old news is your new news" revelation, perhaps. That was another weighty slow news day handicap to the game that came and went while the really important things were going on, out on diamonds, on grass fields. In the sun. Where we all want to be.
It's memories of yesteryear's overwrought storylines and expectations that serve as ready reminders that we'll have plenty of those to look forward to this spring—why look, it's Elijah Dukes! There's less actual baseball news than a immense capacity for coverage at this time of year. That well-fed monster has played its part in making sure that the concept of an offseason, for fans or players or executives, has become somewhat quaint. With the World Series creeping into November, there's seven weeks from “last pitch” to Christmas, and then another seven until... why here we are again, if it isn't baseball, my old, never-absent friend.
These days, that brief quarter of any given year is jam-packed with so much baseball activity that it hardly merits the prefix “off” to describe its season. The impetus for renewal for 30 different organizations does not begin now—it never broke contact with the present. We get the Winter Meetings, where business is occasionally transacted, and the quieter GMs meetings. We get an unending tide of firings and signings and renegotiations, trades and rumors and speculation. There has been another winter of plenty, of front-office activity, of dollars and cents, dollars and sense, and a few more dollars besides, the stuff that another reliable baseball evergreen sprouts from: envy, coincidentally love's chemical cousin.
For those whose love truly needs must transcend the confines of time or space, thanks to cable television (or limitless means, I suppose), baseball's action never really relents on the diamonds themselves. It just moves to other diamonds. Anyone can still catch some action from the comfort of their own home, with a modicum of initiative and a credit card, and without having to resort to ESPN Classic and a willingness to forget the outcome. There was the Arizona Fall League, broadcast a couple of times this winter by the MLB Network, but admittedly that couldn't even get you past Thanksgiving if you were already jonesing for baseball mere weeks after the World Series. If you couldn't wait until now, though, you could happily catch the winter leagues south of the border, broadcast on ESPN Deportes. If ever you were concerned over wherever it was that Hiram Bocachica had gotten himself to, now you could finally find him. Mellifluous boxscore joy made manifest somewhere on one sliver of the thousand-channel world.
And for all that, it's a poor substitute. The need to feed, to gorge, to consume that last bit of baseball sweetness cannot be fended off forever by remote action on foreign shores. Even the Pujols non-stories on the non-event that never stops not happening hold some nutritional value for hearts and minds hungry, even gladdened—dare we say Dan Gladden'd?—by the threat of actual on-field action at long last. Of players playing and pitchers pitching, and the game's rhythms asserting themselves on the strident chatterocracy, pulling its plug and instead putting you insistently where the game is: On the grass. In the sun. A thing of its own, with a soundscape you can hear in the back of your head without prompting, the sounds of bats cracking and mitts popping, of players and fans, umps and vendors, the sounds of people jawing at the park, the sights you see between the lines and across the stands, a living thing moving at its own unhurried pace, a daily escape from the everyday race.
That is what gets renewed today. Not the Game, capital G, or capital M, capital L, capital B, long since broken out far beyond any one summer's expanse to distract and amuse and entertain us year-round with its doings. And not love, either, because if you're fortunate, as most of us are, for some things you never need renewal. Instead, what pitchers and catchers is really about is that unsecret knowledge that somewhere, even as we pine for them, the very things that hooked us on baseball from the start, the sights and sounds and experiences of it, are coming soon. That is not the relief of renewal, but the anticipation of certain joy, that however archaic the concept of pitchers and catchers has become, we get to have baseball. Again. Forever.