The rite of spring corrects the wrong

JOHN EISENBERG

March 19, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

You sit at a red light on a chilly March afternoon in downtown Baltimore, a ballgame on the radio from Florida. A double lands in the gap. There is a play at the plate. Crowd noise fills your car. Your spring training begins.

The players need time to get ready for the season. You need time to get ready for the season. The players need to loosen up their arms and legs. You need to forget the off-season.

It has become your annual rite of spring: purging the memory of winter.

You have little choice. To put on a smile for the season, you need to forget the belch of headlines about salaries and arbitration and fans getting jobbed on their tickets.

You need the game. On your car radio. Somewhere. The game is always the antidote. The nine or more innings every day, particularly in the spring. The game. It saves baseball every year now. Saves baseball from itself.

The winters have become so unpalatable. There is no poetry. Nothing sweet. Just the awarding of pots of gold so enormous they embarrass the holders. And dozens of players changing uniforms, going around and around on a carousel. Who can keep track?

Baseball's winter: balsamic vinegar in a glass of lemonade. Just a guess, but even the most ardent Rotisserian probably finds it unpleasant.

"It's like looking at the sun," Fay Vincent recently told Sports Illustrated. "You can only look at the business of baseball briefly, and then you have to turn away."

But the business is all you get in the winter. It's rough. Not that the players deserve blame for taking the money. The owners have as much, and more. But this isn't about assigning blame. It's that the whole thing has gotten so obscene.

Yes. That's the right word. So much about baseball now is obscene. So much except the nine innings every day.

The problem is there is no way to reconcile the money. Not now. Not with teachers getting furloughed and firemen getting laid off and so many people going hurt or hungry.

You can't reconcile that with a newspaper picture of Bobby Bonilla and Danny Tartabull shaking hands in the Florida sun -- two above-average players, nothing more that that -- and the caption reading: "$50 million worth of talent."

It affects fans. Sure it does. It's harder to feel connected to the players, who, rightly or wrongly, are the life support of any fan's interest in any sport.

It seeps into the game, too. Sure it does. How can losing a game hurt a player as much when he is making $25 million?

And can it be as easy to stand up and clap for the Orioles after hearing that so many good fans are unhappy with their seats at the new stadium?

Yes, the winters are terrible. But then it is February and, slowly, ever so slowly, the healing process begins.

Maybe a preseason magazine shows up in the mail. You don't read it, not yet, but it trips a microchip in there somewhere. Baseball is coming. There will be games. The winter will end.

Then maybe one night on the news you see a pitcher reporting early to Florida. The sun is shining. There is perspiration on the pitcher's chin. Everyone is happy. It is baseball. The game, not the economy.

The players are starting to loosen up. You are starting to forget.

Then the camps open and the cycle really begins. There are still winter headlines, sure. "Sandberg: $7 million man." But at least now you don't have to dwell on them. Now, you can welcome the peaceful distractions of spring training. Rookies. Oldies. Rotations. Lineups.

And then, in the first week of March, the games begin.

The games are magic, pure and simple. Every year, they perform the same trick. They make all the other balder-- disappear. Ryne Sandberg becomes a name in a lineup first and foremost, an economic barrier-buster second. The game wins. Happens every year.

Sure, you're only tricking yourself. You're using selective memory. Purging months at a time. But the game itself is what enables you to do it. The game is a powerful force. Like the Michelangelo computer virus, it can wipe out entire banks of material.

There are few sporting moments more satisfying than a spring game on the radio. It's cold and gray here and warm and blue there, and the names and routines are as familiar as family, and you can close you eyes and see it, and smell it, and it's like adding an hour onto your life.

A couple of doses of that and you know you're going to be OK. You know you're going to come around. You figure you can suffer through a lifetime of winters. Spring always comes next, see. You can look it up.

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