There are four words to baseball fans that, like Punxsutawney Phil failing to see his shadow signal the arrival of spring : “Pitchers and catchers report”. It is a rite of the season that is as old as Major League Baseball and breathes renewed excitement and hope to fans of every team in every city.
It is for that reason the March 2, 1959 Sports Illustrated hangs on my family room wall. On its cover are then Yankees manager Casey Stengel, Braves manager Fred Haney, and the umpires meeting at home plate prior to a Spring Training game. The picture alone looks as though it could have made its way onto a Norman Rockwell canvas, and each time I glance at it I can’t help but be flooded with memories of past baseball springs.
Remembrances of warmer weather, school tryouts, a trip to Tampa with my son to watch the Yankees play, and preparation for my fantasy baseball draft all mark the start of eight months with my favorite sport.
When that SI cover catches my eye its as though I can again feel the warmth of the Florida sun, smell the field’s freshly cut grass, and hear the pop of a tossed ball as it finds its way into the pocket of a glove. I once again recall the excitement of being handed a new hat and uniform after learning I had made the team, or the pride in breaking in a new glove that I would be using in the upcoming season.
Nothing beats lacing up the cleats, pulling the cap down over your head, sliding the glove onto your hand, and trotting out to the position you’d be playing (the position you won in tryouts) for the first game.
I’m sure for professional players the feelings are similar before they erode under the heat of summer as they play their marathon schedule. They too show up to camp full of promise, and hope that this will be the season of their dreams. As Roy Terrell writes in his article:
A dozen very special rookies will have more words written of their prowess than either Mantle or Mays, although once the season begins most of the names will hit print again only in Binghamton and Fort Worth and Des Moines. A journeyman Triple-A outfielder, fresh from a winter of baseball in the Caribbean, will lead the Citrus and Sagebrush leagues in home runs—until the big league curve balls begin to break.
In over a century of professional baseball, things haven’t changed.
Each team enters the year with what they hope are answers to questions left at the end of the previous season. Some teams like the Toronto Blue Jays chose to overhaul their roster through free agency and trades, while others such as the Miami Marlins have decided to trim payroll and pin hopes on youthful prospects.
There are the usual grumblings of salary negotiations as well as high profile off season controversies certain to carry over well into spring (and perhaps the summer). There is no doubt that we’ll be hearing about Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun, Nelson Cruz and PEDs past the All-Star break this season.
None of this is new. Mickey Mantle was a holdout in 1959 and ironically the Yankees back then threatened to slash salaries. It is eerily similar to the team’s self-imposed $189 million salary cap of today.
In 1959 the sport had its share of fodder for media outlets. Terrell writes:
Tony Kubek, who has not been driving as long as Rigney or with anything matching Larsen‘s flair, was picked up doing 80 on the New Jersey Turnpike. This is entirely out of character and can be explained only by news that the Yankees, while awaiting Kubek’s discharge from the Army in April, are going to take a look at another shortstop named Norman O’Neill.
If players weren’t making headlines, owners and managers were. Terrell describes an uncertain situation in Chicago:
Al Lopez, who once again must try to overtake the Yankees without power hitting or relief pitching, isn’t even sure who his boss is going to be. If Chuck Comiskey owns the White Sox, that is one thing. If Bill Veeck takes over, that is something else. It would be nice if Al could know now whether his No. 1 pinch hitter is going to be Ron Jackson or a midget.
Baseball has reflected the issues of society throughout its existence, and in many cases has handled those issues better.
Like no other sport, baseball has a romance to it. In the 1994 Emmy award winning series “Baseball” by Ken Burns, narrator John Chancellor introduces the game:
It is played everywhere: in parks and playgrounds, prison yards, in back alleys and farmers’ fields; by small boys and old men, raw amateurs and millionaire professionals. It is a leisurely game that demands blinding speed; the only game in which the defense has the ball. It follows the seasons, beginning each year with the fond expectancy of springtime and ending with the hard facts of autumn.
Americans have played baseball for more than 200 years; while they conquered a continent, warred with each other and with enemies abroad, struggled over labor and civil rights, and with the meaning of freedom.
At its heart lie mythic contradictions: a pastoral game born in crowded cities, an exhilarating democratic sport that tolerates cheating, and has excluded as many as it has included. A profoundly conservative game that often manages to be years ahead of its time. It is an American Odyssey that links sons and daughters to fathers and grandfathers, and it reflects a host of age-old American tensions; between workers and owners, scandal and reform, the individual and the collective.
It is a haunted game in which every player is measured with the ghosts of those who have gone before. Most of all it is about time and timelessness, speed and grace, failure and loss, imperishable hope, and coming home.
The cover picture of this magazine sums up that introduction to me. It is why I love the sport.
My favorite movie is “Field of Dreams” and in it James Earl Jones (as Terrance Mann) says:
The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again.
It is the feeling I get every spring, and it is the feeling I have now because pitchers and catchers have reported to camp. Baseball has returned.