As the calendar this week flipped over to March, our response was utterly predictable: Oh, boy, it's baseball season.
As surely as daffodils harbinger spring and swallows show up at Capistrano, the stirrings of baseball in Florida and Arizona are arguably our best annual sports ritual.
It is a signal, a reminder that all is well. If boys and men are stretching on deliciously green grass under clear blue skies, all is well; if we are hearing the sweet sounds of baseballs hitting gloves and bats hitting balls, all is well; if we are being told of Latin players arriving late for spring training because of visa and travel problems, all is well.
Baseball is our most reassuring sport.
And the reason it has such a grip on the populace is because it holds out so much expectation. Every team is undefeated today. Every team will be improved this season. Every player will have a better year than last.
It is these unbridled expectations that make it fun and heighten our anticipation. Expectations are good because striving is good. Who wants to think that whatever we are doing today is the best we will ever be and the future is downhill? That's why a hack-around golfer who finally is able to shoot a 99 after 20 years of trying to break 100 instantly aspires to a 98.
Yet, expectations do produce a lot of anxiety. That's because expectations, being what they are, are always way up there and way out there. Expectations also are moving targets.
And no one in Major League Baseball will be fighting the expectation game more than Ken Griffey Jr., the new center fielder for Cincinnati, traded there by Seattle. Griffey is a talent of sweeping proportions. His statistics are the stuff of grandeur: selected an all-star for 10 straight years; winner of a Gold Glove award (for best defense) for 10 years; led the American League in homers for three straight years (48 last year, 56 each of the two previous seasons); picked for baseball's all-century team.
Basically, he is a player without weakness. He even has the capacity to capitulate when he fouls up. For example, two summers ago at the all-star game in Denver, he refused to participate in the home-run hitting contest on the grounds it would make him too tired. When he was introduced at a preliminary event during the festivities, fans roundly booed him. Griffey promptly reversed himself and said he'd take part in the contest because "I don't like to get booed." He won.
Then, of course, there's all that money. The Reds signed him for $112.5 million for nine years, plus they'll give him another $4 million if they don't want him a 10th year.
So with all these stats in his past and all this money in his future, most fans are expecting, well, everything. He should be able, goes a lot of thinking, to break Mark McGwire's home run record of 70; he should be able to smash Hank Aaron's career home-run mark of 755 (Junior has 398); he obviously should lead the Reds to repeated World Series victories.
That's a pretty full plate of expectations. And all this doesn't address the most overwhelming expectation of all: That Ken Griffey Jr. become the greatest player of all time. Whew. He might, of course, but there are obstacles galore, like Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Williams, and Cobb.
And he will be trying to do this back in Cincinnati, where he grew up, under the watchful eye of his dad, who currently is bench coach for the Reds.
Junior, of course, did all this to himself. Cincy was the only place he'd go play, never mind that being a hero in one's hometown is inordinately difficult. People there know you, so they don't believe it's possible.
Athletics are rife with failures in the expectations chase. For example, in baseball these days, the Yankees' Darryl Strawberry continues to fight drug demons that have kept him far from his potential. Two NFL players, Carolina's Rae Carruth and Baltimore's Ray Lewis, face murder charges, which was hardly the expectation. Heavyweight boxer Duane Bobick, thought to be the Great White Hope, bombed. Tennis starlet Jennifer Capriati tanked. Examples are everywhere, in every sport, at every level.
The odds, really, are against Griffey. Shakespeare noted that most often expectation fails "where most it promises." Yet, we view Griffey's promise and, as always, we don't simply hope, we expect.
And nobody expects more of Junior than Junior.
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