Old Man Winter is a malicious soul. He arrives to great fanfare in the midst of any number of celebrations. The Winter Solstice sits near the peak of the holiday season. Punctuated with gatherings, family, and rituals the period is one of high energy and excitement. Every day comes with anticipation and tasks. We travel. We eat (too much). And, we have high levels of social interaction. Usually, but not always, the weather isn’t too awful. The atmosphere takes time to react to the reduced photo-period brought about by the combination of planetary orbit and polar tilt. January comes at first as a welcome reprieve from all the energy before it settles into the long grind of cold and sloppy climatology. By the dawn of February the thrill is long gone. Right then is when the old man really bares his knuckles.
Real baseball lasts 27 weeks. It starts about a week after the Spring Equinox and ends a week and change after the equal and opposite event in the autumn. When it ends the system goes into a bit of shock. Evenings that had baseball appointments on them are suddenly empty. Adding insult to injury the daylight shrinks until the departure for work and the arrival home are both in the dark. Baseball goes onto a distant back burner for the frenzied holidays. It’s a good thing. The New Year marks only the half-way milestone for the long journey through the off-season. January is what it is; a protracted cold shower with an exorbitant heating bill waiting at the end.
February begins with plenty of bang. Few things can match the sheer excitement of seeing a grotesquely fat ground hog providing prophesy over the next month and a half of weather. It’s not that the whole exercise is completely meaningless, mind you. It’s even less consequential than that. Then the Super Bowl quickly comes and goes. Then you’ve got…about seven weeks or so until Opening Day. They last a long, long time.
One of the facets of human nature is that anticipation seemingly slows time to a crawl. Somewhere in the depths of January the coming season is an abstraction. It’s, “…out there” somewhere. There’s nothing tangible about it. Stacked weeks of following trades, whispers, and computer projections have turned the game into some sort of surreal fantasy. Lost in the calculations of what might be is the sense of time moving on. It surely does, however, at its own ferocious rate. That changes after the final whistle of the Super Bowl. Suddenly the long journey through the baseball-deprived winter has an end that seems reachable. It’s time to start getting excited. That’s when Old Man Winter sticks out his withered arm as if to say, “Not so fast, my friend.”
In a world where weather is reliably unpredictable February sets the platinum standard for schizophrenia. During some years the dreary cloud cover will last for weeks. Other years provide long stretches of brutal cold. Then again, some Februaries provide pleasant conditions better reserved for April when the young men of summer take to the diamonds. But, most February weather logs are a frenetic and disjointed mix of all of the above. The warm days tease and taunt. Suddenly it’s time to get the garden ready, get the porch prepared to watch games, and pull the shorts out of storage. Two days of rain later and then the third with a high in the 30’s will bitch-slap that silliness into the future.
Still, February has the most concrete of the signs that the long deprivation will end. Mid-month the ancient and obligatory call, “Pitchers and Catchers report” will go out. If you’re one of the people that travel to Florida to feel the warm breezes while watching the battery players then life is good. If spring won’t come to you, go south and find it. Seeing players in a closer setting offers plenty of opportunities to make a connection. Even if you get bored the option is always there to recline and feel the warmth of the sun. For the rest of us the exercise is still more ethereal than tactile. We are far away from the smell of Neatsfoot oil atomizing from new mitts popping into shape. There’s nothing televised. Other than a long series of cliché-riddled interviews, truthfully, little of it merits televising. Like many things it’s one of those occurrences in life where you have to be there to truly appreciate it. Hundreds of miles north it is reassuring to know the milestone has arrived, nonetheless.
At the end of the month there are the first of the pre-season games. These are either pure gold, iron pyrite, or shapeless lead depending on the eye of the beholder. For the crew that studies the vast networks of developing players as they wend their way through the labyrinth it is a thrill to see the youngsters on the field with big leaguers. The folks that are starved for baseball of whatever stripe find the Grapefruit League games to be a welcomed balm. But, for some the games are more like the intermittent warm days that February provides by being nothing more than yet another hollow tease. Real games count. These do not.
The naked truth is that baseball is a game of summer while February is the very definition of mid-winter. Any relationship between the two is tenuous, at best. A sunset on a clear evening provides comfort, however. The last of the light is filtered by bare trees. There is no sign of spring visible on them yet. In a few moments the lord of the winter skies Orion the Hunter peeks through the last of the luminescence, his brilliant belt aglow. All that the eyes can see scream, “Winter.” But, not all that transpires takes place in plain view. Up and down the Appalachians the Maple trees are tapped to obtain sap for syrup production. In a botanical leap of faith the Maples pump their life liquid skyward towards anticipated warmth. Buried deeply inside the trees know that the season will soon turn. In our most honest moments so do we. And, for right now, that’s enough.
Given the intense debate in the recent comments about the 3 batter minimum, please vote in the poll so we can get a sense of what the TalkNats readers think.
Note that the question is carefully worded so it allows for variations of the minimum batters faced (e.g., 2 batters, batters until a batter gets on base, and so on, and so on).