“Is this heaven?”
“No, it’s Iowa.”
Despite the fact that those words were uttered by Kevin Costner, they still hold a special place in my heart. And as much as a look out the window for Iowans might be deceiving, the calendar still signals the start of spring. That means just one thing to me — baseball is back!
Even though the new year occurs in January, it happens in the dead of winter. It’s an ironic time to start fresh given the lack of freshness in the air. It’s usually dead cold and either raining or snowing. For me, the new year happens in March every single spring when I get to see my favorite teams and players back on the field with the same renewed goal.
It’s the most simple game in the world. It’s bat on ball. It’s pitcher vs. batter, an individual game, but a team sport. At every level, there is a purity to the game unmatched by any other. There is a poetic fluidity to each and every movement on the field whether it’s the pitcher’s windup, an outfielder tracking a fly ball or an infielder shuffling over to field a grounder.
Then there’s the swing. I can’t think of a more natural, flowing move in all of sports than a baseball swing. When done right with symmetry, power and grace, it is worth a million words and more. When done wrong, it looks like the batter stepped on a banana peel and is flailing all the way down.
The most important thing about this time of year is that renewed sense of hope. As the flowers bloom and the sun begins to warm what used to be some blisteringly cold parts of the country, there is renewed hope for the year. The start of a new baseball season signifies what everyone longs for — a childish sense of optimism.
This is the case at all levels of the game. From Little League all the way up to the big leagues, everybody thinks that this is their year. And why shouldn’t they? Baseball is not a game that favors the biggest or the strongest. It rewards hustle, grit, enthusiasm and execution. Basketball and football celebrate supreme athletic ability, but baseball ignores it completely. It’s all about how hard you are willing to work. It’s also about understanding that despite your very best efforts, failure is an absolute certainty.
Every pitcher gives up runs. Every batter strikes out. Nobody is unstoppable. That’s what makes this game so unpredictable and invigorating. It’s not a metaphor for anything else. Nothing is as fair as a baseball game, even though it seems to be the least fair thing in the world (sorry Cubs’ fans).
The game provides thrilling moments that don’t go by with a buzzer in the background. The most captivating ones of all time — Aaron Boone’s homer, the Bartman incident, Bill Buckner’s error — stand out because they take forever. The visions of that ball sailing to the upper deck or Moises Alou slamming his glove in frustration stick out in our minds as personal YouTube clips, able to be references at a moment’s notice.
The clock doesn’t tick down to zero. The players decide when the game ends, and it often ends in the most painfully heartbreaking way imaginable for one side, which makes it all the more sweeter for the other. Once again, it’s the fairest game on Earth and like a box of chocolates — “You never know what you’re gonna get.”
Last year, the Angels and Red Sox had perhaps two of the most talented teams ever assembled. Both missed the playoffs. The young guns in Washington had a series ripped away by the savvy veteran St. Louis Cardinals. Every team in the American League seemed to decide to stop hitting around Oct. 10. And once again, the gritty San Francisco Giants walked out as champs.
The great thing about baseball is that all those teams could be horrendous this season, and as much as the talking heads on ESPN like to make you think they have a clue as to what happens, nobody ever does. It strikes me as odd when those articles come out ranking a team’s offseason. Once again, the Red Sox and Angles dominate the offseason, but come October, they’ve been dominating the couch lately.
So each and every one of those players can trot out with a smile because they have a justifiable reason to believe that this season ends in greatness. It undoubtedly will, we just cannot tell who will be great versus who will lounging in their comfy chair, drinking beer and shouting obscenities about Joe Buck and Tim McCarver.
Regardless of the outcome, I cannot wait for that very first pitch of the year. Play ball.