It's May in February

PETER SCHRAG

February 28, 1991|By PETER SCHRAG

Spring training hasn't come a moment too soon. To those of us who retain the inner calendars of colder climates, it never could come too soon.

Long before the snow melted and the first crocuses appeared, the boys of summer were working out down among the palms in St. Pete and Vero Beach, in Scottsdale and Bradenton, full of the fresh promise of another season. In the dirty old snow and the damp urban cold of New York or Boston or Chicago in late February, we desperately needed that promise.

But this year there's other reasons, not just for escape, but for the reminder -- in the surrealism of war and the anxiety of recession -- that things come around in their season and are renewed no matter how much nature elsewhere is turned on its head.

We argue how much the game has been changed by artificial turf, designated hitters and exploding scoreboards, but for the purposes of its promise, the game hasn't changed at all.

More than a decade ago, Roger Angell, our finest baseball writer, wrote about the usefulness of spring training in getting rid of the aftertaste of the winter baseball news -- ''the bitter flavor of money, litigation and failed imagination.'' Or, indeed, the unpleasant aftertaste of almost anything else.

Once again, he wrote, ''it came to me that the gentle and nearly meaningless competition in the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues provides a wonderful quiet space in which we can listen to the true voices of baseball, which are silent in winter and not always heard in the heat and roar of the summer races.'' Spring baseball, he said, is all surmise.

The surmise is about more than who will win the division races or the pennant -- it transcends questions about Orel Hershiser's fitness to pitch or the fast ball of a 44-year-old phenom (who, if you think of it, was already pitching during the Vietnam War) or the strength of Tony LaRussa's lineup or the weakness of the Mets' defense. It is about the ability of things to return to their own pace and their remembered intimacy and, most of all, about the curative power of time itself. The short season, Roger Angell says somewhere else, ''renewed my fondness for small ballparks and small crowds and the country quiet given over without regret to the sunshine game.''

It's not that way in most of those Cactus and Grapefruit League places any more. Like the big-league parks, where the game is increasingly submerged beneath the rock music, the dot races and the hope that the wave or some other peculiarity of dress or behavior will give the spectator, no longer quite a fan, a moment of televised celebrity, the Cactus League parks, now crowded with tourists, have erected their own barriers.

But you don't have to be there. If what you see, in some interface of memory and imagination, is what it once was, know the fast forward of a wonderful May day on a gray February afternoon, you can be anywhere. If you can see, maybe with the help of a Red Barber or a Vin Scully, what the coaches call the fundamentals -- the motion of an elegant swing, the efficiency of a pitcher like Nolan Ryan, the arc of a ball thrown inerrantly from right field to third base, a well-executed pivot at second -- you have, even against the relentless insanity of the nightly news and the morning headlines, something for the mind to stay on. The fundamentals, regardless of all else, are by definition always the same.

Mr. Angell points out that baseball is a linear game. ''Something happens, and then something else happens. . . . There's time to write it down in your scorecard or notebook, and then perhaps to look about and reflect on what's starting to happen out there now. It's not much like the swirl and blur of hockey or basketball, or the highway crashes of the NFL. Baseball is the writer's game. . . . and its train of thought, we come to sense, is a shuttle, carrying us constantly forward to the next pitch or inning, or to the sudden double into the left-field corner. . . .

''We anticipate happily and, coming home, re-enter an old landscape brightened with fresh colors. Baseball games and plays and mannerisms (even the angle of a cap) fade stubbornly and come to mind unbidden, putting us back in some particular park on that special October afternoon or June evening. The players are as young as ever and, we perhaps, not entirely old.''

The beginning of spring training, with its promise of all that, is the only celebratory ritual we have between New Year's and Easter, and it lasts a great deal longer than either. They are playing ball again out there. It is not like the swirl and blur of hockey or the violence of football. It is not like war.

Peter Schrag is a syndicated columnist.

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