There are those who will claim that Christmas is their favorite time of the year. Others favor the summertime for its vacations and long lazy days, while still others lean towards autumn and its first touch of cool breezes and shower of golden leaves.
For me, there's no time like the early days of spring, when the grass is green, the air is shaking loose the stale winter chill, and lines of chalk on a diamond of green define all that is great and glorious with the game we call baseball.
I love football for its precision and tactical formality, for its controlled stylized violence and warm spirit of martial camaraderie. The feel of a perfect pass leaving the fingertips, its inevitable perfect path to a receiver's hands already as clear in your mind's eye as if drawn in glowing laser light... the surge of ancient instinct -- "RUN! NOW! GO!" -- when a cutback lane opens in the edge of your vision in the maelstrom of a play in progress... the animal joy of impact, flesh on flesh, as you connect squarely with that foul bastard who dared suggest that he might encroach on your territory. All of this is capital-G Good.
I love basketball for the free-flowing improvisation and infinite variation it affords: five individuals all swirling and dancing in some impossible non-choreographed ballet no one need explain or think about... the cocky giggle in the back of your mind when you glance into your opponent's eyes and realize that he's scared, that he has no idea what to do to counter you or best you... the insane feeling of connectedness when you stop and pop a 16-foot jumper and know from the millisecond it leaves your hand that you are safe to turn and head back upcourt,' cuz that rock ain't goin' nowhere but the bottom of the bucket, baybee... again, all very Good.
But baseball... never has Man yet designed a better test to reveal a man's weaknesses and strengths, his deepest fears and best attributes. Timid? Unsure? Arrogant? Complacent? Indecisive? Lazy? Baseball will find your faults and make them known. The better and more experienced players understand this, and that's part of what brings them back every season: the determination to stare into the face of that magic all-knowing field of green and say "You bested me before, but today -- right here, right now -- I'm ready, I'm worthy. This day is mine."
To stand and face an entire team of agile defenders whose only goal in life is to deny your claim to safe passage across that tiny slice of ground between home and first base. To step into a square drawn in the dirt, a club in your hand, as an opposing pitcher smirks a literal stone's throw away secure in the knowledge of all those foul tricks he'll use to try and make you look foolish and incompetent. To know that your best efforts to overcome these tricks will be judged -- harshly -- in real time and for all time by a heartless bastard of an umpire who feels no love, brooks no debate, and who is by his own definition both infallible and incontestable.
There's no going back, and no going around, and the only way forward is to live through that hungry moment looming before for you now with bared teeth and naked claws.
"You really think you're ready, little man? Well, let's find out...."
To accept and realize that you are locked in a contest where many times your greater success for your team very often results from your own personal failure, and that sometimes your own success will in fact hurt your team's cause. That you can do everything right yet still fail, or do everything wrong yet still succeed. That here, in this game, "sacrifice" is not just a vague concept but is instead an actual codified and defined play outcome. That no matter how well you play, you will never play as well as you dream, as well as you soon will wish you had in hindsight. Baseball more than any other sport forces you to mentally replay every single moment and realize all you might have done differently, done better.
To breathe deep and know the smell of baseball -- a smell which in my experience has no comparable analog in other sports: the glove leather, the new mown grass, and the dust of sandy clay soil, and acrid sweetness of the lime chalk, the warm horsehide smell of the ball, the distant faint smolder of ozone you can sometimes catch on a still night when the towering vapor lamps first fire up so as to give the gods themselves a clearer view of your impending futile testimony.
To endure the unpredictable spans of relative boredom in the field, when you are required to stand ever-ready, on guard for an attack which might never even come, or, when it does, will not be as you'd anticipated. The split-second decisions required by the various component parts of the defensive team, as you have to know instantly what angle to take on the ball, where to try and receive the catch, what kind of throw to make, what target to choose, and what insanely precise body control is required to make a comically non-areodynamic sphere of leather, string, and cork cut through swirling winds in order to hit a glove sized target half a football field away... and then live in hope that the other members of your team all arrived at the same immediate conclusions and are in proper position to then make use of whatever preliminary try at a play you've offered.
To shudder slightly in terror as you dig in at the plate, a feeling which somehow mixes with an eerie calm as you set your stance and wait for Inevitability to come out and play, because every swing you make (or refuse to make) has in some strange draft model of the Universe already been made, been tried, been long resolved since the beginning of time, and all you can do now is play out your part in this strange little sequence.
To see the pitcher's stretch, the delivery, the hiss of the approaching pitch screaming in at your head OH JESUS AT MY HEAD then you calmly snap your wrists and twist your hips in an explosive move you've practiced hundreds times -- ten thousand times, from days before memory -- and then, if your testimony is clear and pure and the gods deem you potentially worthy, a round stick will connect square with a round ball, and a silent diamond will be punctured by the pistol crack sound of rapturous unadulterated joy AAAAIIEEEEEEEE! and you discover yourself already sailing toward first, and suddenly the crowd reappears in the back of your awareness as you become the living breathing absolute undeniable indisputable Center of Everything, and for a flickering moment you feel what it is to be absolutely in control of every aspect of your reality -- yours is the hand on the tiller, the will at the helm -- and then you arrive at first, and the moment subsides, and you breathe a deep sigh, pleading silently with the Almighty, "Please, God -- let me feel that just one more time before I leave this world. Just once. Please..."
For me, that's Baseball. That's Spring.
And it ain't bad.