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.
Tuesday night they announced nineteen Pawtucket Red Sox players have been called up to the parent team since the beginning of the year. It is the season of opportunity in the Red Sox farm system, and it is fun to see Spring Training in August. If you’re not contending then you better be re-building.
Bringing in young talent has new meaning, when you see Allen Craig, Shane Victorino and David Ross retire to the disabled list within one week. Craig and Victorino have severely tested their health insurance over the year, and Ross has been fighting through plantar fascitis for an undetermined period. Up come Corey Brown, Mookie Betts and Dan Butler a month early. Spring is in the air!
The rapid migration of young talent can only be a healthy sign for the dilapidated Red Sox. Already Brock Holt and Rubby DeLaRosa have emerged as Major League talent as they were promoted to replace the faltering Middlebrooks and Dubront. We would have waited till September to see this fruition, but for the rapid decline of these veterans. As it is, Holt and DeLaRosa are establishing themselves as starters for 2015.
A competition for center field seems inevitable as Jackie Bradley Jr., Mookie Betts, and Brock Holt all seem to be auditioning. Bradley, Jr. does not seem any more selective with his swings as the year goes on, and both Betts and Holt have shown good range and good arms in the outfield. Betts showed speed and acrobatic agility in the spectacular catch to salvage one game from the Yankees over the weekend. Holt showed a strong, accurate arm to home plate Tuesday night.
Rookie catchers are now in control of the Red Sox staff. Fortunately it is the same rotation that Christian Vasquez and Dan Butler caught in Pawtucket: DeLaRosa, Brandon Workman, Allen Webster, and sometimes Anthony Ranaudo, when opportunity knocks. The Pawtucket bullpen has been re-assembled in Boston: Alex Wilson, Tommy Layne,and recent acquisition Heath Hembree. So really nothing is different, except bigger and faster competition.
With Craig Breslow’s control in decline, it is heartening to see the effectiveness of Tommy Layne as a left-hander out of the bullpen. He made a fatal mistake by walking the lead-off batter on Tuesday, but he has been otherwise effective. By the way, shouldn’t there be a fine for walking the lead-off batter under any circumstances? At this point, there should be no reason not to throw strikes on the Sox pitching staff. Watch out, Rubby DeLaRosa!
With youth in the starting line-up, the Red Sox are no worse than they were in July. They lost on Tuesday, but they were competitive with a contending team, the Cardinals. Really they were beaten by a cluster of scratch hits, and they successfully executed a bunt sacrifice to score the go-ahead run. It’s Spring Training, and life is good.