Maybe now, on a back field in some team's camp, the next Koufax or the next K-Rod throws in the brilliant sunshine of spring training, as if warming in an incubator. Just the hint of such a possibility is a great part of the magic of this time of year. Spring training can only give birth to dreams. Whether they live or die is ultimately left to the regular season.
At least this spring we know the 162-game schedule will be played. We know that the defending American League Central champion Minnesota Twins will not be contracted. We know that as many as four players—Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, Fred McGriff and Ken Griffey Jr.—might hit their 500th home run. (As recently as 1964, only four players in the history of the game had reached that plateau.) We know that Roger Clemens needs only seven victories for 300. We know that at least one team that lost more games than it won last year will earn the surprise team designation, and maybe a whole lot more.
The familiar iconography of spring training brings assurance. There is the palm tree, a symbol of steadfastness against trouble, described in the Koran as having sprung from the residue of the clay that made Adam, esteemed by the Romans as spoils for victorious gladiators and worshiped by relief pitchers for the spot of shade it offers on the outfield berm of quaint and sunny Holman Stadium in Vero Beach, Fla., winter home of the Dodgers for 55 years.
Westward stand the cacti, most of which bloom only in the spring and only briefly, some for just a matter of hours—much like the annual spring training phenom who can't hit a lick once the season begins.
Among the saguaros last Thursday morning, in a Phoenix public park where the Athletics train, you would have found Barry Zito, the 2002 AL Cy Young Award winner, loosening his arm. Imagine Placido Domingo working on his chops at a karaoke bar or Tiger Woods pounding a bucket or two at the local muni goat track, and you understand the beautiful unpretentiousness of spring training. Zito wore yellow knee-high socks, green shorts, a yellow shirt and a cap with the tag still dangling from a vent hole. Here was a kid playing catch, or as Wordsworth wrote, "the glory and the freshness of a dream."
When Zito was done throwing, after he had returned to the high-school-caliber locker room through the glass door bearing the motherly reminder NO CLEATS, a reporter asked him what he thought of spring training. "It's cool," he said. "After the winter it's nice to get back to work, get back together with all the buds again." And then he found a word for it that's just perfect this year. "It's cleansing," he said.
Don't try telling me that spring training and its loose, disjointed games are meaningless. The meaning this year is thicker than SPF 30 lotion on a Milwaukee Brewers fan in Phoenix. Spring training, which always did seem to come at exactly the right time, has its groove back.
It is once again an old-fashioned ritual, and for a game that lingers in our hearts more because of what we think it was rather than what it is, that is a very good thing, especially in these troubled times.
So go ahead: Hope all you want.