Winter’s dreary days drag a gray blanket over the cold world. Spirits plunge along with the mercury in thermometers. Bare branches, brown grass, and pale skin long for the sultry touch of sunshine, but all they receive is the chilly comfort of February rain as winter blues fade into bleak black.
Then one hears those four mystical, marvelous, miraculous words: “Pitchers and catchers report!”
The magical incantation causes Old Man Winter to vanish into thin air. Suddenly, the light pierces the clouds with golden streams of promise. Morning temperatures receive an early wakeup call from spring. Branches bud, lawns green, and the sun shines.
The Boys of Summer are back and spring cannot be far behind.
Winter does not officially end until March 21. However, baseball’s Spring Training is an early harbinger of warmer days. The American and National League teams are practicing in the sunny climes of Florida or Arizona in preparation for Opening Day. The first to arrive are the pitchers and catchers to warm up their arms after the off-season hiatus.
The Atlanta Braves call Champion Stadium in Orlando their home away from home. The baseball complex is part of Disney’s “Wide World of Sports.” The intimate stadium is modeled after historic fields of yesteryear. Veterans, rookies, has-beens, never-will-bes, and want-to-bes strut their stuff around the diamond. The fans laze in the Floridian sun and soak up the games.
Attending a Spring Training game had always been on my Bucket List. So in 2004 and again in 2007, my son and I headed south on I-75 to central Florida. The weather was perfect with balmy breezes and highs in the eighties. We arrived on Thursday with tickets for the Friday and Saturday games.
There is something magical about a baseball stadium. The grass is greener and the dirt browner. The white of the uniforms and baseballs glows with ultraviolet bright. Nowhere do hotdogs taste any better with mustard, ketchup, and relish dripping down the fingers and chin. The smell of the watered lawn and sprinkled dust accentuated by leather gloves and spilt drinks wafts through the air.
We joined other fans streaming into Champion Stadium for the afternoon’s festivities. The scoreboard kept a tally of the runs, but the outcome of the games was unimportant. For a few blessed weeks in Spring Training, it really doesn’t matter if you win or lose but how you play the game. I don’t remember the box scores, but I will always recall my son’s face filled with the essence of what makes men love the game.
During the seventh inning stretch, the entire stadium stood in the time-honored tradition. We joined in singing baseball’s anthem, “Take me out to the Ballgame.” For a few minutes, it really did not matter which team you rooted for. Baseball fans sang together for the love of the game.
At the conclusion of each ballgame, the announcer invited the children to gather around home plate. One by one they ran the bases before sliding into home in a cloud of dust. If there is a baseball heaven, then those boys and girls caught a glimpse of the eternal stadium that afternoon. Grins threatened to split the children’s faces in two. Almost every adult watching from the seats would have gladly joined them in a romp around the infield to “touch ‘em all.”
John Fogarty, who was the lead singer for the band “Creedence Clearwater Revival,” sings a song entitled “Centerfield.” The rock beat of the first verse declares:
Well, beat the drum and hold the phone—the sun came out today!
We’re born again, there’s new grass on the field.
A-rounding third and headed for home, it’s a brown-eyed handsome man;
Anyone can understand the way I feel.
Then the chorus echoes with a sentiment that any child of the game intuitively understands:
Oh, put me in coach, I’m ready to play today.
Put me in coach, I’m ready to play today.
Look at me, I can be, center field!
We returned home late on Sunday night to face the real world of school and work on Monday morning. However, the memories will last a lifetime.
For a few precious days, my son and I joined the Boys of Summer.