Few things state winter more strongly than the sight of the powerful constellation Orion the Hunter situated squarely in the southern night sky after dusk. He is the de facto lord of the long nights. Like all rulers his time to reign has an expiration date. As the sunrise moves north the constellation slips below the horizon eventually becoming a pre-dawn attraction during the summer. Also like most rulers, he doesn’t exit all that gracefully. In the mid-Atlantic February is typically a test of patience and wet weather gear. Slushy, sloppy, and almost interminably gray sums up our shortest month. Climatologically it may not end well. But, at least it ends with baseball players in camp at some warm weather haven.
At its absolute core baseball is a game of the light. The regular season starts less than a week after the Spring Equinox. The schedule runs through the arc of increasing and waning daylight until it ends roughly a week after the beginning of autumn. Baseball simply eats the heart out of the watermelon that comprises days of longer daylight. Of a year split nearly equally in half baseball occupies the better. We associate the game with late twilights, pleasant evenings, and short sleeves. It is small wonder then that the clarion call of “Pitchers and Catchers” elicits a welcomed grin in the midst of Orion’s tiresome waning days. The calendar will soon flip the page. Near the bottom of the next sheet there are symbols that indicate real games are scheduled. For the time being, it’s just enough.
All of this is part and parcel of the rhythm that being drawn to baseball imparts on us. There are expectations for certain deliverables. For example, few things are more time-worn than Spring Training interviews. The prototypical interview with the southern-drawled pitcher declaring that his, “…arm feels real good” is predictably trite, but nonetheless reassuring. It is an integral component of baseball’s own rites of spring. Crash Davis taught Nuke Laloosh how to speak the ancient language of Cliché for a reason. It is the life’s blood of baseball’s connection to its devotees. The content is meaningless. It’s the familiarity of the pattern that is soothing.
Given the above it is completely disorienting to absorb this year’s edition of baseball’s return to Spring Training. Although patented clichés are being disgorged by the train load they are totally obscured by louder noises. Organizations that ignore problems tend to become overwhelmed by them as the issues mature. For all its romance professional baseball is still a business enterprise. Right now it is one in crisis. As is usually the case this is one of its own making. The predictable calming patter of early Spring Training has been replaced by discussions of cheating, retribution, and vapid changes to the fabric of the game itself. Those who turn to baseball looking for a calm and cozy backwater amid the whipped fury of the daily news cycle are in for an abject disappointment. It is a pity.
There’s a basic rule for organizations to follow after an incident: Tell everything to everybody immediately. Nothing is more destructive than a continual drip of new information after the “exhaustive” investigation is completed and disseminated. It is the one sure-fired recipe for destruction in the book. Enter the media sharks; Stage Right. Enter the attorneys; Stage Left. Credibility goes flying out the window followed closely by confidence. Without either a sea-state change is inevitable. The open questions revolve around how messy the change process will become. Almost without fail the leadership will produce a diversion: “Let’s have some rule changes.” The new tack only finds more headwinds from a fresh quarter. In the meantime the sharks know that blood in the water leads to meat. Inexorably, they will find it. Unfortunately, the sport’s consumers are left to absorb this poorly-produced and predictable play.
Also sadly lost in this din are the final days of unfettered championship glow for the Nationals. For an area that waited 95-years for a champion and wandered the desert without a team for 34-years the attention of the cheating scandal has been a bit of final indignity. The post-season run was epic and timeless. A team that lived on the brink found, strike that, made a way to survive and win. Improbable is too weak a word to describe it. When Daniel Hudson’s final pitch smacked the mitt the clock read ten-minutes until midnight. Fairy tales seldom get re-written. But, this time Cinderella beat the clock and made it home. It is a remarkable story. Nothing in the current din can undo the magic. It has just been relegated to second-tier status by the ongoing torrent.
Still, a championship however slighted remains for the ages. Many years ago an old codger acquaintance had a familiar ritual. Whenever a group of us youngsters were around him he’d go to the freezer, grab some ice, and put it on his forearm’s ancient tattoo. Nearly sixty-years prior he’d gotten the ink in Paris after the Armistice. Somehow the ice melted away the years on the mark and his face revealing a young Doughboy in the City of Lights exulting in having somehow survived the Great War. The flower of a generation lay beneath the sod in Flanders’ fields. The fates spared him from that end. How better to celebrate than getting the American Eagle tatted onto the forearm in an age when such a thing was a rarity? The ice exercise wasn’t as much for us to see his prize as it was for him to know it was still there hiding in plain sight under creped skin. Years from now we will bore the young with stories and memorabilia of our seminal baseball memory. Like the old veteran it will be mostly for the benefit of our own senses.
As Orion grudgingly leaves Center Stage we are left to find our way through this new season. The familiar is obscured. The chaos is palpable. The future is opaque. Somehow in the larger sense a 19th century game has to maneuver the changing landscape of the 21st complete with technology beyond the grasp of Sidney Reilly, the “Ace of Spies.” When faced with uncertainty the eyes and ears lock in to leadership searching for comfort. In this case scarce little of it is forthcoming.