Play ball?

ARE you ready for baseball? Do the fans of those boys of summer have it in them, before the ides of March, before the calendar even officially calls it spring, to throw out the first ball to engage their imagination, or wherever it is that grown folk follow a sport?

The young boys are at it, warming up with their fathers, getting back their timing with practice swings in the driveway, in the brief, still, sunny interstices in March's gusty, snow-spitting weather.

The big boys began the exhibition season last Friday, after a couple of weeks of training: the world champion Detroit Tigers vs. the Boston Red Sox in Lakeland, Fla. The ``frost belt'' teams are still in the Sunbelt. They move north with the thaw line, but even at this year's April 8 official opener they must risk a freeze to launch the season.

Does a nation of shopping malls, superdomes, gallerias -- ceilinged against the climate -- care when spring comes? In a nation where some think that agriculture, our most weather-intensive industry, starts on the supermarket shelves, in frozen-food aluminum trays, salad bars, and deli counters, has baseball become spring?

In a synthetic society where AstroTurf is readily accepted for the muddy and green-staining variety -- the kind your mother gave you the dickens for soiling your Sunday pants on, during a pickup neighborhood game in the days before seven-day jeans -- has sensitivity to the seasons lapsed?

Not yet.

Some unconscious sense of the rightness of times still operates. Stretching out the seasons is one thing -- ending winter hockey in May, basketball in June, and autumn's pro football in deep January. Fog in the playoff ice rinks or a balmy California Super Bowl does no great harm to the public's ability to encompass the major sports in their traditional segments of the year. There seems to be a tacit acceptance of allowing the playoff season to overlap the coming sport.

But the new spring professional football league is finding, amid dismal attendance, that trying to turn the hemispheric seasons on their heads, timing North American football to Brazil's harvest, for instance, goes against a fundamental athletic tradition that even a Doug Flutie may not be able to dislodge.

In us, a countervailing force resists opening the turnstiles too early, the attempts to promote an endless profitable season. A common public consent really declares when a season begins.

Are you ready for baseball?

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