Hope, Aristotle divined, is the dream of a waking man. America, at midwinter in a post-9/11 world, challenged that notion last week.
Hundreds of bits of a spacecraft still lay strewn along miles of the Bible Belt. Duct tape, the classic punch line of handyman humor, suddenly became a serious staple of civilian defense against dirty bombs that might come from unknown agents of war. And the words weapons of mass destruction rolled too easily off the tongue, included in the foreboding drumbeat of news from the Middle and Far East. While much of the country listened for diversionary sounds of encouragement, the too-familiar scrape of a snow shovel upon the driveway or the chattering of teeth against February's chill only mired them in a deeper state of blue.
And just then, last Friday, on Valentine's Day morning as it happened, hope, as Aristotle knew it, made its presence felt in Mesa, Ariz. The Chicago Cubs' pitchers, whose degree of wakefulness in recent years could be questioned by philosophers of absolutely no repute, began their first workout of spring training. Hey, with hope—as with love, charity and a good full-bodied red wine—no helping is too modest or too insignificant to nourish the spirit.
In groups of a half dozen or so, the Cubs climbed a conjoined strand of mounds and, before tossing baseballs, began snapping hand towels. The pitchers held the towels in their throwing hands, wound up as if delivering a pitch and, without letting go of the cotton cloth, snapped it on the mitt of a kneeling catcher at the foot of the mound. The towel snapped only when the pitcher properly extended his arm motion. It was one of those crazy sights you see only in spring training.
What a fitting start: the Cubs actually working on throwing in the towel. This is the 95th consecutive year that they will try to win the franchise's third world championship. Oh for 94 isn't a slump. It's a legacy. It is the DNA of this franchise. The Cubs treat a fan's heart the way Lucy handles the football for Charlie Brown's placekicking.
"In all my years in baseball," said new manager Dusty Baker, teeing it up, "I've never seen a group of stud pitchers like this—6'5", 6'6"...hard throwers."
Baker, you might recall, last season managed the San Francisco Giants, who led the clinching game of the World Series by five runs—and lost. No team, not even the Cubbies, had ever done that.
If baseball is but a diversion anyway, nothing sends us down the rabbit hole of possibilities more than spring training. And the good news—Lord knows we'll take any dose of it these days—is that spring training, which inspired mostly fear and loathing a year ago, once again is worthy of all the hope we can muster.
Last spring played out darkly under the threat of a looming work stoppage that many feared might wipe out the 2003 season, too. And even if baseball did play the full schedule, commissioner Bud Selig, like the Grinch who stole Christmas, had drained hope from the season before it began with his constant bleatings about "competitive balance," warning us that only a handful of rich teams could win the World Series. Teams without money were so useless, Selig declared that he wanted to eliminate two of them and had support from other owners to get rid of more.
Of course, because baseball has the regenerative powers of a salamander's tail, the improbable happened. First, owners and players signed off on a four-year labor agreement last August, ensuring a run of 11 uninterrupted seasons for the first time since Curt Flood challenged the reserve clause in 1970. And then the Anaheim Angels, a Disneyfied version of the Cubs, won the first world championship in their 41-year history. The Angels did so with a $62 million payroll, less than half of what their first-round playoff victims, the New York Yankees, spent and less than 13 other clubs, as well.