It's back. Break out the heated debates, the oiled glove and the tall tales of how good you once were. Put the new pocket sized schedule in your wallet and throw out the old one. Let it be known that your job productivity will cool off as the weather heats up. Get yourself ready for dreams and heartbreak. It's spring, time to be a kid again, because baseball is back: so order a bag of peanuts and a Coke and settle in.
About a week ago, I headed to Arizona to check out the Cactus League. Spring training in the Phoenix area is uniquely for the young at heart. The league caters to the baseball fan. Almost every team plays within thirty miles of each other. The two that don't, the Diamondbacks and Rockies, play in Tucson, which is about an hour and a half drive south on Highway 10, through the ochre and faded green of the desert landscape. The Grapefruit League in Florida is basically a pilgrimage in honor of one team. Players ride buses for hours to distant ballparks and young fans are left sitting, hat askew, new glove in hand, watching the game on the plastic covered couch in their grandparents condo. A commitment to Florida becomes a reinforcement of team loyalty after a cold winter. But, the Cactus League is a theme park of baseball molded to a child-like wonder for the game, with seating available on a grass outfield and teams somewhere playing everyday where you can lose yourself again in the game.
The Indians played the Reds and you could hear the buzz from Goodyear Ballpark about Ardolis Chapman's fastball throughout Tempe Diablo Stadium where the Angles were hosting the Rockies in a split squad game. All down Mill Street near the Arizona State campus grown men wore Brewers, Padres, Royals and Cubs jerseys and drank and argued why this, above all others, was in fact the year. They had scouted each other. Taken their kids to the games. Seen the new line-ups, the new looks and were invigorated by a sense that they would still be there in October.
A father with his father waited in the ticket line at HoHokam Stadium in Mesa. The ticket vendor said they had sold out the outfield grass seats and only had grandstands for $17 or box seats for $28. They sat amongst old friends wearing Army caps in the shade of the box seats, tickets that would have cost ten times as much in Chicago, and looked out over the plush green track of land. A man came up the aisle wearing a hat that said "The Beer Man" passing out baseball cards with his face on it, shouting, "Frosty, ice cold bee-aaarrrr he-aarrr." He raised an Old Style beer above his head and handed one of his personalized cards to a kid who glanced at it, laughed and then tossed it beneath his seat when beer man moved up the aisle. The father with his father ordered two beers and they drank them and started asking each other questions like, "Who's number 61?" and "Why is it Carlos Zambrano gets behind every hitter?" The announcer came over the public address system with, "It's 65 degrees and sunny today in Mesa and back in Chicago it's....28 degrees." The two men, one old and one young, smiled knowingly.
Colleges weren't out yet for spring break so the stands were filled with older fans. The signs on the outfield fence advertised a winery, a medical center, a golf club and chain restaurants and seemed to solidify that older look, but the feel was much younger. They still yelled, "Jesus, ya gotta make that play," when a grounder was botched, rose from their seats at the turn of a double-play and when the Diamondbacks third baseman Mark Reynolds almost missed a pop up in foul territory, each man strained his neck upward, flipped back the visor of their caps, looked at the high sky and agreed, "Musta lost it in the sun. Yup, must have."
And then, Justin Upton came to the plate.
Everyone chattered about how good this "kid," this "youngster" was and names like "Mays" and "a young Ken Griffey Jr." rippled through the stadium. A kid in his twenties wearing no shirt yelled for him to go deep and a man with a bushy mustache who could have been his father grinned and yelled, "GO D-BACKS."
Upton stood in the batter's box, toes raised like a ballerina about to spin and rocked back with his body, slowly, calmly. The pitch crossed the plate into his hitting zone and Upton thrust his front foot down, spun his hips, threw his hands forward in one beautifully violent motion. The bat whipped forward with his forearms screwed tight. Contact sounded like a gunshot. His top hand slid off the bat and he watched the ball shoot up into the high blue sky. And he eased up. And the fans rose. And he trotted down the line as the ball hit the top of the scoreboard over 420 ft away.
The knowing smiles of the older fans in front of me grew larger. Some sat back and puffed out their lips grimacing as the ball ricocheted off the façade. "Oh boy, did you see that? Did you see that?" They gawked and grimaced at Upton as he rounded the bases.
They game continued and fans young and old watched the pitchers jog along the outfield track as they delighted in seeing rookies with names like Josh Vitters and Starlin Castro. It ended with a walk-off double by some kid from Omaha whose name would never be known in the grand circles of baseball. But, it didn't matter to those watching in Mesa Spring because, when Upton hit his shot and the kid from the minors connected on the heater, it wasn't just the Cubs and Diamondbacks they saw. It was Sandy Koufax's overhand curve. It was Pete Rose diving into third. It was Ozzie back-flipping onto the field. It was Buckner's legs and Ripken's streak. It was even McGwire and Sosa chasing Maris. It was the memory of childhood. The one that promises ripped jeans, barbeques and broken romances. It was early adulthood and the gift the game provided to break up that twelve-hour shift. It was parenthood with bills to pay, but not before a catch. It was dozing off in a hammock to the buzz of a mower with the announcer's voice on the radio. Baseball provides this because it brings the eternal promise of summers remembered. And when spring comes and it's still cold up north and numbers like 59, 64 and 79 are common on a ball field and old men grow young again in the dry sun of the dessert then you know, just around a corner, smelling of pine tar and oiled leather, Opening Day will arrive. And in Phoenix, you get to see the old grow young in a dozen stadiums a day.