Spring training is just around the corner. For most baseball fans, this is a period of a prolonged and steady, almost excruciating, rise in excitement. The sexual connotations inherent in the above statement are obvious, and necessary, as for many fans spring training is the closest they will ever come to genuine sexual pleasure—excluding pennant and World Series titles, awards given for individual accomplishment, and “that one time fumbling in the darkness behind the 7-11, among discarded candy wrappers and half-empty Big Gulps”.
Regardless of whether or not your team is going to be a good one, the stories that come out of spring training are on the whole hopeful. Unless your team’s star pitcher or center fielder tears a significant limb into ribbons during a routine stretch, there is usually little fuel to add to the raging fires of doubt that normally churn in any fan’s heart. Fans spin poor news endlessly and plausibly, as any team can be as good as any other before the regular season starts and the horrible truths begin to present themselves, one-by-one, in a procession equivalent to the exquisitely painful cutting rites of North American “emotional” teenagers.
Is your team flush with an unusually high number of former stars well into the back ends of their careers, coasting on name recognition and the residue of muscle built up before the ban of performance enhancing substances? That’s okay, because once upon a time that forty-two-year-old first baseman with hypnotically throbbing metre-thick veins hit 54 home runs, and he says that this season he feels—cross his heart—“better than ever”. “Better than fifty-four home runs?” the fan asks himself, eyes misty with wistfulness. The mind wanders… focused on this statement it transcends reality and enters into a mystical plane of pure happiness known as “The Shadow Zone”. Alas, the perceived mental and physical health of an individual has absolutely nothing to do with actual performance.
Did your team lose every single exhibition game, usually by an unflatteringly large margin, and most embarrassingly, to thirty-year-old double-and-triple-A rejects playing on wisps of pity and fumes of hope? There’s no need to worry, because “the pre-season means absolutely nothing”. As we all know, regardless of whether or not your team’s opening day catcher knows the correct way to hold his glove in spring training (those in the know say palm—that’s the “catching” part—out), those games mean less than one one-hundredth of a belch and the situation will automatically resolve itself as soon as there is something on the line and the clueless player taps into his body’s vast, now dormant, stores of “heart”.
And what if your team played suspiciously well? Was there a little too much hustle in their trot to first base, perhaps, on a routine ground ball? Were their smiles after yet another four run inning—against an eighteen-year old pitcher just drafted from high school, popping pimples and scratching his blond, nearly indistinguishable “spring training beard” between innings—beyond the regular point of celebration and entering into the land of desperation, vague creepiness, and ghosts? That’s fine. That’s called “building momentum”. Even though a season is really a string of one-hundred-and-sixty-two self-contained instances (known colloquially as “games”) stretched over a period of seven months, it’s well known that it is possible for even a mediocre team to build enough steam beating up on replacement players to sustain themselves on that long journey from April to September, and beyond, into contention—though there are few, if any, actual examples. Probably none. I can’t think of a single one off the top of my head.
Reality aside, for the next couple of weeks every team in baseball has a winning record. Let’s try to celebrate that as much as possible.