The surest sign of spring isn’t a groundhog, it’s not the wildflowers growing under the bushes on the side of my yard, it’s not even birds returning home.
No, it’s spring training.
I understand that down in Florida and Arizona where baseball teams are warming up for the season there are no long winters. I also understand things around here don’t look anything like they do in Goodyear, Arizona.
But when the pitchers and catchers report, it takes me back to my childhood. When I heard that Frank and Vada were headed to spring training, I knew something great was about to happen. There is something special about spring and baseball.
Baseball isn’t even my favorite sport — I’m more of a basketball guy. But there’s no sport that brings that special feeling like the opening of baseball season. It’s sunshine, fresh air, flowers in bloom, the optimism of life starting over again. Football starts out in the heat of August with full pads – how can that be a good feeling? Basketball is played indoors and includes long, sweaty practices. I can tell you from experience that a basketball locker room just doesn’t have the same atmosphere as a baseball field.
Baseball brings with it a special feeling — no, it’s a special smell (well, so does a basketball locker room, but that’s another story.) You can smell spring when it arrives in Ohio. That’s when you grab your ball and glove and run outside to greet a new season.
I would find a friend and we would play catch. I can still smell the leather of the glove and hear the thwack of the ball snapping into my friend’s glove. We would try to out throw each other, but we would never, never show in any way that the other guy’s pitch hurt our hand when we caught it. There are certain rules of baseball pride and etiquette that cannot be breached.
My brothers taught me how to bat left handed when I was young. This didn’t do much for my baseball career, but oddly enough it did help me play basketball. I was always comfortable doing things with my opposite hand.
That brings up another point. Things are different these days — boys and girls specialize in sports at an early age and often do that one sport year round. I think they’re missing something there — basketball players make great football receivers because they know how to use their bodies to keep other people away from the ball; baseball players learn early that backpedaling seldom works and they transfer that to other sports; I’m not sure what soccer players learn, maybe how to use their heads.
Anyway, there are way too many young people playing sports because they (or their parents) want to be the next LaBron James or Mike Trout, and not because – here’s a novel idea – it’s fun and it’s a great way to learn how to work together.
Plus, different sports help develop different muscles. Ask the NBA about how the league’s young players are susceptible to injury when they enter the league because they have been doing nothing but playing basketball for a dozen years. They’re worn out. How is it that all these athletes with modern training methods so often get injured?
And, of course, they miss out on that feeling every spring. They’re stuck in the gym while a whole new world of hope and color explodes outside. I remember thinking every year that this year will be different — I’ll hit the ball farther, throw the ball faster, make that great play from the hole at shortstop. Sometimes I did, sometimes I didn’t, but looking back I can see that just being there was the important part.
The Reds are down there in Arizona and while I’m not paying any attention to how they’re doing, I know it won’t be long until they’ll be coming north. I might not be able to swing the bat so well anymore and my reconstructed shoulder won’t let me throw the ball very far, but I can still smell spring coming. For a few days, I’ll be a kid again, and it only happens when the flowers bloom and the birds return home — and when baseball comes back.