The Cruelest Month

T.S. Eliot may have been born in St. Louis, but I can tell you he was never a Cardinals’ fan.  If he had been, he would have realized what anybody with sense already knows:  April is not the cruelest month.  March is, by a long, long way.  Every year, after enduring the snowy, sullen skies of November through February, those of us whose hearts skip a beat when we hear the crack of a bat or the solid thud of a ball whistling into a glove have to wait even longer–thirty whole days–for the games these gentlemen play to actually mean something.  It might as well be thirty years.

Oh, I know the truth:  the players need the time.  The pitchers have to get their work in.  The everyday position players have to get loose and ready after a winter within which they may have done, deliberately, very few things with a baseball after living with it day and night for the previous seven months.  I know, too, that dreams are on the line in March.  Young men who’ve spent the previous summer in AA or AAA ball are invited to Spring Training and challenged to earn a spot on the roster of 25 guys who’ll make up the team on Opening Day.  Retreads or guys near the end of the line get invited into camp, as well.  Their dreams matter, too.  If the boost up from riding bumpy buses to a ballpark in Amarillo to the major-league minimum salary of $500,000 is heady enough for the minor-leaguers to contemplate, the dream is even more intense for the guys nearing the end.  That big-league check is hard to let go of, and so is the life that check represents.  Some men will do anything to keep those checks coming.

I know these things.  It still doesn’t help.  For me, and for millions of fans like me, the days of March drag by.  We do get some satisfaction in watching a young stud like Luke Scott absolutely torch the entire Grapefruit League for thirty days and earn a spot on the club.  But Spring Training success is often a mirage.  That same Luke Scott, who batted .500 or so in March, could just as easily do nothing in April, strike out constantly, and find himself on the fastest jet possible to Baltimore where, eventually, he turns in a respectable career as a power-hitting outfielder for the Orioles.  Such is the way of the game.  Mostly, though, for the fans, Spring Training is an endless series of half-games masquerading as the real thing.  Pitchers toss an inning or two to start out and work their way up to four and five innings at a time.  Everyday position players get maybe a couple of at-bats, field a couple of balls, then call it a day.  For the manager, whether it’s Buck Showalter or Bruce Bochy, it’s a real challenge to find enough innings for the pitchers or enough at-bats for the hitters.  Even with split-squad games, there just isn’t enough time.  But here I am, sitting at home, feeling that there’s too much time.

Try telling that to Wandy Rodriguez, I say to myself.  The left-hander is back with the Astros for a second tour of duty, perhaps, in camp on a minor-league deal.  Rodriguez, who was once a mainstay of the Astros’ rotation, is 37 now, and if he gets a spot on this season’s team, he’ll have to earn it.  Left-handers generally are in short supply but, even so, the Astros have pitching depth and Rodriguez has competition for one of the few available spots on the staff.  For him, March simply will not be long enough.  Every pitch he’ll throw will have to count for something.  If he were young again, like Joe Musgrove, he could simply be optioned back to the minors and wait for another, better chance.  But Rodriguez is not a young baseball player any more.  If he cannot make it with the Astros this season, he will most likely retire.  But he has almost no time in which to  avoid that fate. Neither does a shortstop who might get only five good swings in all month, or an outfielder whose plans to impress the club on defense were wrecked by a bad hamstring suffered on the second day of camp.

March is, therefore, as horribly compressed for many players as it is hopelessly drawn out for those watching in the stands.  The one activity  wherein both players and fans feel the tediousness of it all, though, is infield drills.  Over and over again, the first baseman will toss the ball to the pitcher coming over to 1B to cover the bag, and the second baseman and the shortstop will practice the flip, pivot, and throw to 1B for the double play.  Those key defensive plays that are routine in the seventh inning of a game in June are made to look routine right here in March.  The teams that make those plays consistently, and make the outfield throw of hitting the cut-off man to keep a runner from advancing, are teams that usually have a good chance to play deep into October.  But, no doubt about it, in March, the work is a grind.

The season itself, as it begins to unfold in April, is also a grind.  It was made to be that way.  Unlike the other team sports wherein a club plays once a week, or at most four games in five nights (only to decompress and play perhaps twice a week over the last two months of the schedule, as pro basketball does), the thirty games of March lead to a baseball season of 162 games played over the course of 180 nights and days before the playoffs even begin.  Major-league baseball takes the full measure of a man, and of the team he plays for, and it offers to both players and fans a profound sense of hope.  A club can be 15-30 and dead in the water, as the Astros were in 2005, and wind up playing in the World Series in October.  More subtly, the game doesn’t depend on pushing and shoving, as football does; it requires defense to be played, as well as offense, which the NBA seems to forget on most nights.

In essence, baseball is most like golf which, as a friend of mine in college, a golfer, once told me comes down to “just you and that little white ball.”  But here’s the difference:  golfers can and do learn the swoops and swerves of a manicured golf course.  That’s why you have guys on the PGA tour who have won the same tournament three and four and five times.  But not in baseball.  You can study the nooks and crannies of Wrigley Field or Fenway Park all you want, learn exactly where they are, and still make a crucial error in the eighth inning that costs you a game.  You can know exactly what the pitcher’s going to throw and even where he’ll throw it and still not be able to hit the pitch.  And if you happen to be that pitcher, you can make a perfect pitch, and watch the batter hit a rocket to second base for what would be the final out of the game, only to see your second baseman get the ball stuck in his glove and unable to make the throw to first.  If the next man up happens to loft a pitch down the right field line for a three-run homer to win the game for his team, you learn pretty fast two other, useful things:  you learn that it’s not “just you and that little white ball”; other people are involved.  And you learn what heartache is.

What Spring Training does, then, is get players and fans ready for the season.  But it does something else, too:  it educates us and prepares us to experience the most complex passage of time that any of us will ever encounter in any walk of life.  The casual fan, observing a game on a lazy afternoon in June, may think that baseball offers us all the time in the world.  But the players and those who watch them closely know something far different.  They know, as the calendar turns to March, that time becomes an illusion:  we have so much of it, but we have so little.  Somewhere in between those two facts, we have to place our bats, our gloves, and our lives.


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