Q: What are the last two words of the Star-Spangled Banner?
A: Play ball!
I love that old joke, because it reminds me that baseball has a world of its own, not contaminated by politics. It inhabits a bubble where patriotism, children, the discount bleacher seat, and seasonal optimism can play through the distractions of life, even Presidential campaigns.
Yes, baseball has its issues with exorbitant contracts, PED’s, Pete Rose, and Hall of Fame balloting, but on the field it retains its innocence and its youthful hope at the start of spring.
It’s ten degrees outside my door, but in destinations in Florida and Arizona they are taking to the fields of spring training, and every team is trying to be the Kansas City Royals or the New York Mets, the phoenix rising from the ashes of the lower division. And for three months every team will sustain that hope, as we watch for the next pitching phenom to reverse the destiny of the perennially struggling franchise that has begun to change its culture.
Yes, there is a culture of winning teams in every sport, but in baseball you are often surprised by the team that suddenly tastes the success of winning and assembles a community of believers in time for April. Or the team that sinks to the depths in June only to rise to the playoffs in October. Or the team that foresees its fate and begins to sell-off its high-priced talent in July. These moves all result from a changing culture, often fed by winning or losing, but also by new talent blooming too late for this year or tiring arms not equipped for the September run-up to the playoffs. It’s a long season, and it has its rhythms and hiccups, just like life.
A new bend in the life cycle is that planned retirement of beloved players, like Mariano Riviera, Derek Jeter and David Ortiz. The dignity of these final acts raises the sentimental joy of every fan, as players are celebrated in the ball parks of their adversaries. Not any player can take these final bows gracefully, but the ones who can, bring out the non-partisanship of true baseball fans, who can even boo with respect. So one story that will keep us focused throughout the season will be the last season of David Ortiz, a slugger who may finally give status to the role of designated hitter. Will he be the first to make it to the Hall of Fame?
So let us now “Play ball!” and let baseball lift us from sordid political campaigns and bitter racial struggles in the cities. Let us open to the Spring Training news to see what hope our local entry brings to the season. Let us plan our visits to the ball park, not too late in the season, when hope may have evaporated prematurely. And let us honor the pure souls of baseball like David Ortiz and David Wright who are devoted icons of their cities, their “nations.”
Baseball, the only game that reminds us that spring is a state of mind.