FOR years I've watched every televised spring-training baseball game I possibly could. Not so much for the contests themselves as to take in the shots of green, sun-drenched diamonds, of high blue cloudless skies, and especially of the male spectators in the stands. There they lounge, bare-headed, clad in shorts and T-shirts, sporting sunglasses, relaxed and soaking up the Florida, Arizona, or California sunshine.
Seeing them, I bet two-thirds of them are there for the same reason that I'd like to join them - to exorcise horrendous high school or college memories of spring training in the North.
To my mind, spring baseball training north of the Mason-Dixon line is the closest thing we have in this country to a gulag. Forget about the sun warming brilliantly green grass and smooth, dry sweeps of infield dirt.
There is no sun; the faded grass lies limp; the infield is frozen solid one inch below its damp, sticky surface. Forget about blue cloudless skies; Northern ones are overcast, gray, and ugly, and spit sleety raindrops into frigid faces. Forget about gentle zephyrs caressing a perspiring brow. The wind is definitely not caressing, and there's not a drop of perspiration in the county.
In that weather, despite the two or three sweat shirts they wear under their uniform jumpers, ballplayers in spring training are covered, not with sweat, but goose bumps. Every set of teeth is chattering. Hands, faces, and ears feel as if they're freezing - which they probably are. Why can't they make baseball caps with earflaps? Or fur-lined baseball gloves?
And why are they out in this arctic atmosphere? Because it's spring-training time! The last snow disappeared four days ago; the coach has assured them that that's a baseball diamond out there, not a slice of Siberia. The weather has warmed up lately - by 3 p.m. it's risen to 36 degrees. So break out the balls and bats - suit up - let's go! It's time to start preparing for that opening game (if it won't be snowed or sleeted out).
To undergo the rigors of spring training in states like Minnesota or Maine, you need to be either stupid or unquenchably devoted to baseball. Preferably both. To even contemplate playing the game on such surfaces in such temperatures requires a vision and optimism not granted to men who desire to live safely and sanely. To brave those chill factors in a baseball uniform bespeaks a commitment to the game equal to that of Ty Cobb or John McGraw.
If you doubt me, then ask those sun-basking middle-aged fellows in the stands what it's like to take ``warm-up'' throwing in the Northern states during spring training. They'll tell you the courage needed to catch a baseball so leaden that it puffs your palm. So cold that you might as well be tossing ice cubes. They'll let you know how cold a bat feels when you're at batting practice. They'll describe how it stings when you foul a ball off the end of your bat. Or how you wonder if you can still flex your fingers, much less curl them around a bat handle.
They will insist that you don't know what bad hops are until you've taken them on an infield that's as iron-hard as a frozen-over lake. Or what it feels like to take them on the shin or shoulder from a baseball as darkened and dangerous as a grenade.
They'll confide what it's like to shag flies across an outfield so waterlogged that your socks are soaked halfway to the knees, and your feet and legs are so numb you have to look down to be sure they're still attached to you. And you might find a few who are tough-minded enough to recount what it's like to endure the ordeals of sliding practice on an infield as tough skinned as tundra.
Those who underwent - and undergo - such miseries will all agree on one point: Spring training in the North seldom has anything springlike about it. They'll vow that you have to have the heart of a deep-freeze DiMaggio just to survive it - and that only dreams of a .380 batting average or a no-hit shutout during the coming season can keep you turning up for practice day after day.
To me, these Northern baseballers - not the sun-soothed major- and minor-leaguers in Florida, Arizona, and California - are the unheralded heroes of the game. They are intrepid Scotts, headed toward a Pole where (maybe) the sun will beam down upon them on some triumphant day. What they must weather to play baseball proves what stalwarts they are.
Those fellows in their middle or later ages deserve their seats in the sunny stands during spring training now. The warmth of the afternoons, the untensioned pace of the games, will, I hope, help erase the shivers of their spring-training days. Let them wonder, if they will, how far Willie or Hank would have gone in baseball if they'd been born in North Dakota, Idaho, or Vermont. Or how far they themselves might have gone if they had been born in Alabama, California, or Florida, and taken their spring training in truly spring weather.