It comes with an unsettled feeling, this time of year. It gets into your skin. It feels almost itchy. The season involves an awful lot of accounting. We have so much to do, and worry we’ll forget something. There are gifts to buy. We have to find the extra boxes of ornaments. We’re supposed to be happy. We move through traditions, flitting from party to party, glad to see friends and sing songs, but also worn down by too much food and family and time spent in bedrooms that don’t fit us anymore.
Baseball’s winter season has a similar feel. It means getting to work. All the activity carries with it the expectation we’ll get what we want, and be happy about it. GMs tilt at a better roster, a better summer, better fall nights. We worry they will do too much; we fret when they seemingly do too little. The stove cools for a bit and we start to fidget, anxious for more action, only to have our limbs itch again as they light up with new warmth spreading through them. Like a gift forgotten, there is a concern that all this will not be enough. Part of our measuring in this time of year is of ourselves, and what we have done with our seasons. The tumult gains urgency in its anxiety because what if we are doomed to fail again before we have really even started? What if we waste another year and then another? What if we have, without knowing it, wasted our best seasons and now have to reassemble ourselves, hoping to steal back a little time by trading away the aged bits? The fear of starting out on the new year’s work is that it will be wasted effort. In the waning days of 2016—a year that proved to be a fretful, painful squall—this anxiety is perhaps heightened. We have no more control over the work of baseball than the work of the world, and perhaps even less. Baseball’s sovereign authority does not come with rights of citizenship after all. Other, grave problems loom out in the world of real work, but we become unquiet at the thought of how our distractions may be altered when we return from them.
All of this can leave us feeling a little blue. The soundtrack of the moment has hints of our melancholy, even if they’ve slipped in among cheerier tunes. Frank Sinatra would tell us to hang a shining star upon the highest bough, but Judy Garland’s original “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” might be a more faithful rendering of the moment. No tree topper will overcome the natural anxiety of what the fates will or won’t allow. Rather, Judy tells us, as if resisting the lyrical sleight of hand that was to come, that we must simply find a way through.
Except Vin won’t sit with us anymore. Our old sources of comfort are gone. The responsibility of keeping our stories has passed to others; next year’s baseball will be rendered in different voices and with them, parts of our living room and evening routine will be made unfamiliar. Our guys are in flux. Some will wear new uniforms; we wonder when we might see them up close again, or when we’ll remember with greater certainty where they landed. Will they be the same there, so far from where we call home? We’ll feel envy at the shiny baubles other teams were able to afford with talent and treasure. We’ll peek furtively at off-season plans set like proud displays on a mantle, and wonder why Chris Sale couldn’t come to be seen through our picture window. We may not like our new presents, and our team’s projects of self-improvement might feel too heavy.
A distinction is normally drawn between Garland’s version of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” from the film “Meet Me in St. Louis,” and later recordings that were made a bit lighter, changing the final line and placing the emphasis on the idea that someday soon we really all will be together without lingering overlong on what mischief fate might get up to in the meantime. But Garland’s version is actually a second draft. Hugh Martin, one of the lyricists, reported changing them after Garland found lines like “Have yourself a merry little Christmas / It may be your last” too cruel to sing to a child. The ennui of the season, written as the song was against the backdrop of World War II, was too real to ignore but so bleak a view as Martin’s threatened to be too final, too fatalistic. We let the anxiety in, but we can’t be consumed by it.
Spring will come. We’ll put away ornaments and, with the relief of winter’s passing, laugh at taking it all so seriously. All of this is no more real work than that of Christmas. It may all fail horribly, but there will always be another season, another mad dash toward October. The beauty of spring is that you don’t remember the anxiety of winter well enough to worry over your next worry. Or maybe you remember so well you just steadfastly turn away from it. Either way you make your plans. You reject the bleakest version of your song. This will not be your last. And slowly you get another sort of itch. The itch for it to begin, for dead fields to come to life. For sun. For games to be played. And, after all this work, they will be. Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.