Stepping Once Again Onto the Field of Dreams

It's a travel poster day. There is nary a cloud in the sky nor a discouraging word on any lips. It is obscenely warm, especially for March's early days, which often are the ugliest of the year for broad expanses of the land. But not here in south Florida where palm trees sway in gentle breezes and sunglasses adorn most faces and the line between real life and fantasy is blurred.

In this setting, 4,736 of the happiest people in the world are sitting in the new Roger Dean Stadium at a spring-training baseball game. The vendor is calling out, "Peanuts, peanuts.'' Music over the loudspeakers is Fats Domino, a rock star in, oh, the early 1800s. The hot dogs are cold and not cooked enough, which is excellent, exactly what we expect and want for $3.50 each.

Indeed, America's grand institution of spring training is both extremely important and meaningless. That's why we love it. It is perfect in a quixotic way.

To understand the significance of spring training, it's key to understand what it's not: It's not about the games. Here, the St. Louis Cardinals beat the Los Angeles Dodgers the other day 13-5 and Mark McGwire hit a towering 400-foot plus home run. This has nothing to do with anything. In fact, even during the regular season in which games played approach 200 per team, one game is but a pebble on the base path. A spring-training game has substantially less significance.

In truth, what spring training really is about is us.

It represents the season of hope and the opportunity for renewal. Every team, and each of us, is undefeated at this point. Every team, and each of us, is certain things will be better than last year, except the Florida Marlins, who won the World Series. The Marlins try to act certain they will be equal to last year.

Spring training represents an important part of the rhythm in our lives. For millions of people, nothing is more synonymous with spring than spring training. Same time, every year, we turn the corner on grayness and point toward days of endless sunshine. Or so we like to think. Everyone is young again in spring.

For many, getting to the ballpark in time for batting practice around three hours before the game starts is a major part of the event. The appeal of batting practice is that over the years, it has not changed a lick. While a player stands in the batting cage hitting cream-puff pitches, other players await their turns, standing with ankles crossed, leaning on their bats. How long have players struck this pose? Forever.

But mainly during batting practice, the players spend much of their time standing around visiting. We watch this and are envious. Theirs is the perfect job. It's how we imagine things for ourselves in an ideal world. That is, we would stand around in the sunshine and get paid outrageous amounts of money for doing absolutely nothing.

Too, much of baseball is decidedly low tech, like us. When the field is being prepared for play, a garden hose is used to dampen the infield soil. One man turns on the water, another directs its spray, and four others support the hose at varying intervals. Must be a union operation. We do the same thing at home and it's a one-person deal. Then a man carefully goes over the white lines to make them new lime bright with a well-traveled little device on wheels that has put down many lines. Home plate is still cleaned off with a small whisk broom. The signs on the outfield fence are for a bank, a beer, a restaurant, a hotel, just like they were 50 years ago.

We love it because baseball in this setting seems to say that all is right in the world, that there is no strife or disagreement or homelessness. Of course that's wrong. But it feels that way. Baseball is a warm cocoon we crawl into this time of year. It feels safe.

And it feels good because it lets us drift into the past. Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst, 56 years in baseball, presents the lineup card at home plate for the Cardinals. He's dealing with young players who have no idea how good he was. Too bad.

The crack of the bat against the ball. The pop of a ball in a catcher's mitt. These are sounds immemorial that we cherish. Spring training. How very sweet it is. Like us.

* Douglas S. Looney's e-mail address is looneyd@csps.com

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