Monday, March 31, 2014

Requiem for Winter: Opening Day and the Art of Anticipation

Baseball makes you wait. There are no continual end to end sprints present in basketball and hockey. There is not a play clock like that which drives the game of football. The audience is held captive by the lingering stillness before a pitch. Every seat is empty, as everyone present is on their feet creating a roar that can only grow louder as the moment progresses. Tension builds and overwhelming pressure lands on the shoulders of the loneliest man in sports- the pitcher. He pauses and winds his body away from the plate. He hurls a leather-bound bullet less than sixty feet in under a second. Strike two. Heart rates increase. The crowd has reached a deafening volume. The inning, the game, the season can turn on what happens next, and everyone present knows just that. It may be but a few seconds, but the wait seems endless. The pitcher accepts the catcher's sign and sets. The resolution is about to come.

It only makes sense that a game so drenched in the art of suspense would be the harbinger of spring. Here in Northern Indiana, this winter was hellish. The "polar vortex" made an almost weekly sub-zero visit, at least once causing mandatory curfew due to dangerous conditions for emergency services. Many times, spring felt years away; forget about summer. In some parts of the country, unprecedented snowfall made chaos of morning commutes. We held out for some positive forecasts, and rejoiced upon the concept of temperatures above freezing. Then in mid-February, something happened that went precisely as scheduled- baseball. In Florida and Arizona, the "Boys of Summer" came together in their annual rites of preparation. While the weather had not improved much here, it was a sign that warmer times were truly on the horizon. The crack of a bat. The smack of a base into a glove. These are the sounds of summer.

Robinson Cano, the game's best second baseman, shunned pinstripes for the Emerald City to the tune of ten years and two-hundred-forty million dollars. Never afraid to empty their savings, Steinbrenner and company looked like the Yankees of my youth, signing power free agents to help bring an end to the team's brutal one year postseason absence. The Masahiro Tanaka saga was the lead of every baseball program throughout the offseason. While 'mystery teams' seemed to pop up left and right, the twenty-five year old Japanese ace settled in, where else, the Bronx. Almost every team addressed holes in their roster, likely giving a false sense of optimism to their respective fan bases. Please pardon my cynicism, I am a Cubs fan. The free agent carousel wound down, and the actual games began to take priority in the minds of those holding to their optimistic creed that in baseball, anything is possible.

On the twenty-second of March, the baseball season began. It was the earliest a Major League season had started in the near one-hundred-fifty year history of professional baseball. If you were like me, which I kind of hope you were not, you were up early last Saturday to watch the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Arizona Diamondbacks live from Sydney, Australia. As fate and hemispheres will have it, March finds the land of Oz in late summer. The game seemed somewhat surreal, as two of the better teams in our nation's oldest league faced off at the Sydney Cricket Ground, a stadium that dates back to 1848. I fought back the sandman every inning, but I managed to make it long enough to see Brian Wilson (and his epic beard) bag the eighth and Kenley Jansen close it out. The second game, played late at night here in Central Time, had the same result. The Dodgers began the season with two wins over their rival, and the the baseball schedule was underway. Almost. Again, baseball makes you wait. Another week of exhibition games would precede what most of us consider the real Opening Day.

For the millions of baseball fans who waited in the barren darkness of the offseason, today opens the book of Genesis. Six months of pain and anguish, of redemption and exaltation, of unbridled hope and somber acceptance, begin today. Nothing will go as planned, and that is why we watch. We care because despite the most finite statistical analysis, nothing can perfectly predict what happens in the moments that change everything. The 2012 season ended with the greatest hitter on the planet striking out looking. Averages can form given a large enough sample size, but every moment is exceptionally special. That is what makes baseball so great. We know what could happen, but we wait with bated breath for an unpredictable outcome- the inevitable unknown.

~

The pitcher winds and begins his delivery. The batter has but a fraction of a second to decide on his action. The ball hangs for a moment. In his trained eyes, it is a steak dangling in front of a junkyard dog. The batter twists his body forward. His bat rushes around. He anticipates the movement of the ball and leads his swing to an intersection over the plate. But the ball does not move as he predicted. He anticipated a fastball. The call was splitter. It's too late. The ball meets the heavily-padded mitt of the catcher. Strike three. The crowd erupts. The pitcher jumps wildly into the air and into the arms of his catcher. A single index finger pointed toward the heavens. This was the final out of the 2013 World Series. The Boston Red Sox were crowned champions once more. In an instant, a play that can occur in any game at any time, became an exclamation point on another dramatic and memorable season.

The stage is set as it was a year ago. There is no fathomable way to know how it will end, but that is why we care. The end of last season is now firmly dwindling in the rear-view mirror. Now let us begin again.

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