I hated baseball so much as a kid that I would occasionally hide my glove in the trash to get out of Little League practice. Football, hockey, wrestling—I played them nonstop, sometimes changing equipment in the car as I went from practice to practice. I just never fell for the game that my father, an outfielder who had tryouts with the Cleveland Indians and the Detroit Tigers after college, loved so dearly. Baseball was too slow for me, too boring. When I was growing up in Grosse Pointe, Mich., Tigers broadcasts used to put me to sleep faster than cough syrup. And I guess it didn't help that when I did play the game, I stank.
So the glove would get tossed under the couch or into the hamper, leaving my poor dad befuddled. "How does someone lose his glove four times in one season?" he once asked as he drove me to practice in our faux-wood-paneled Ford wagon. "This is it, Bear. I'm going to get your mother to take you to see a doctor." She never did, and I carried my enmity for the national pastime into adulthood.
A few years back, as a reporter covering a sports memorabilia show, I tried to ask Reggie Jackson—you know, one of the great ambassadors of the game—a few questions about the IRS investigation into athletes who weren't reporting income from card-show appearances. He waved for me to sit next to him and then whispered this sewage in my ear, all with a big smile on his face because there were fans waiting nearby to pay $50 for his autograph: "You f——— little nobody piece of s—-. I'm Reggie f——— Jackson. How dare you? Do you know what I think when a nobody reporter like you crawls out of some hole and asks me a question like that? I think, f—- you, you f——— little piece of crap. Now get the f—- out of my sight." He then turned to the crowd, shook my hand and said loud enough for everyone to hear, "Hope that helps! Thanks for coming by!"
When baseball tried to kill itself three years ago with a strike and the cancellation of the World Series, I quietly rejoiced. I could do without a bunch of overpaid, ill-mannered, self-absorbed jerks subjecting me to what can be the most stultifying sport this side of curling. That was still my attitude a few weeks ago when an editor asked me to head to Florida for spring training. "Honey," I alerted my wife, "I think I'm finally being punished for drinking all that free soda at work."
My first stop was the New York Mets' camp in Port St. Lucie, where John Olerud spent two days apologizing for being 10 minutes late for an interview. "How is he going to fit in in New York?" I asked a friend as Olerud kept his parents waiting a half hour while he signed autographs after an exhibition game. Also while at St. Lucie County Stadium, I came closer to doing the macarena, thanks to Uncle Johnny the dancing usher, than I'd like to admit.
My next stop was Baseball City, spring home of the Kansas City Royals, where you can get a seat behind the dugout, a corn dog and a lemonade for a grand total of $12. Before a Royals exhibition game, future Hall of Famer George Brett explained to me how hitting a ball was like punching someone's lights out in a barroom brawl. He demonstrated by pretending to slug me on the chin. Then, to show him I understood the concept of how momentum relates to power, I threw a roundhouse at him. "That's it!" he exclaimed, patting me on the back.
Moving on to Kissimmee, where the Houston Astros train, I soaked in the sun and chewed on sunflower seeds as I took in the sights and sounds of batting practice. Maybe I'm just getting old, but for the first time the pace of this game and its subtle nuances appealed to me. I chatted with new Houston skipper Larry Dierker, a former big league pitcher who was hired out of the TV booth to manage the Astros. Dierker listens to Jimmy Buffet and chats baseball strategy with fans over the Internet, and one of his main objectives as a manager has been to stress the fun of the game to his players. "What's the worst thing that can happen with all this?" Dierker asked. "I might get fired, right? Big deal."
In Melbourne the Florida Marlins' new skipper, Jim Leyland, propped his feet on a desk and answered questions while munching on chicken. When he wasn't updating the media on the house training of his new puppy, he was talking about fixing baseball. "Take a guy like Kirby Puckett and let him play on each team in the league for a week at a time. That'll fix it," he said. "And get rid of all this loud music and the giant video screens with highlights screaming at people. We should just strip the game to its core and let people fall in love with it all over again."
Or, maybe, for the first time. Now, if I could find my glove.