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STANDING IN LEFTFIELD DURING a major league game -- I am playing leftfield--heightens my very sense of being. There is a vibrancy to the colors and sensations around me that, even as I stand there, I am cataloging in my most secure vault of memory. I can feel the tips of my metal spikes knifing between blades of grass and into the soft, moist earth. I feel the fit and drape of my uniform, a major league uniform, my amazing technicolor dreamcoat. Gray pants, belted tightly, black-mesh jersey with TORONTO in metallic silver above the stylized Blue Jays logo on the left breast and a shimmering silver number 2 on my back. Never can I remember the sky bluer, the grass greener, the sun brighter. ¶ With a change in perspective, the familiar becomes intensely intimate, like actually standing on the blue carpet of the Oval Office or feeling the floorboards of the Carnegie Hall stage beneath your feet or leaving footprints upon the Sea of Tranquility. It is not an out-of-body experience but rather its opposite: a saturation of sensations. ¶ It is also a little like transporting dynamite on your person. A feeling of power, yes, but with a constant undercurrent of danger, especially knowing that Blue Jays first baseman Eric Hinske, who keeps fouling off pitches like a finicky shopper picking through unripe fruit, could at any moment send a curving line drive screaming my way or, worse, loft a fiendish high fly into that bright, cloudless sky and cruel cross-field wind, leaving me to look as if I were chasing a dollar bill dropped from a helicopter.
This is where the long march of a baseball season begins. A team will play upward of 200 games before the curtain falls on the World Series. This is the first for Toronto, an intrasquad game. About 2,000 fans--nearly all of whom, to my dismay as I try to track pitches from leftfield, are wearing gleaming white shirts--ring the backstop of Field 2 at the Bobby Mattick Training Center in Dunedin, Fla., drawn by those two lovely words after a winter of scraping snow shovels against the driveway: game today.
I am a sportswriter, and sportswriters belong on the other side of the fence with the other unchosen. So why in the name of Kafka is a sportswriter playing leftfield for the Blue Jays? Maybe Kafka, not always the surrealist, can explain. On Oct. 18, 1921, three years before he died at age 40, Kafka cracked open his diary and wrote this entry: "Life's splendor forever lies in wait about each one of us in all its fullness, but veiled from view, deep down, invisible, far off.... If you summon it by the right word, by its right name, it will come."
I have come to Dunedin to summon it. Beginning with the team's first full-squad workout on Feb. 25, I have spent five days as a full-fledged player, in spirit and in uniform--attending every private meeting, running every sprint, participating in every live batting-practice session, sharing every clubhouse joke. "The full metal jacket," as manager John Gibbons promised me.
My most modest goals were to make it through five days with my bats and my hamstrings intact, though not necessarily in that order. My greater goals were to learn about the game up close, in the first person rather than in the third, about how spring training begins to lay the mortar for the sacred brotherhood of teammates--and about myself.
Five days a Jay, standing there with the vastness of leftfield my responsibility, my head is crammed with newfound knowledge. I've heard the ferocious hum of a 95-mph fastball, taken more than 100 swings a day, been hit by a pitch and heard grown men admonished for not washing their hands after using the bathroom.
Now it is about to end. I will get one at bat in this intrasquad game. One chance at splendor.
Day 1: Beware of Fecal Matter
Red sox, Yankees ... Red Sox, Yankees ... I don't care about the Red Sox and Yankees. We have to take care of ourselves. This is the most important year in the four years I've been here. This is your chance, from right now, to decide what kind of team you want to be." ¶ General manager J.P. Ricciardi is addressing his troops in a classroom down a hallway from the main clubhouse. Like schoolkids the players fill the desks in the back of the room but leave most of the ones up front unoccupied. This is what is known as the annual orientation meeting, ostensibly to introduce the training, coaching and support staff--and this year one embedded reporter--but also for the manager and general manager to set the tone for the season.
The Blue Jays are a blank slate. After a surprise third-place finish with 86 wins in 2003, Toronto sank to the basement in the American League East last year, losing 94 games. The Jays are Liechtenstein in a division with Cold War superpowers New York and Boston. Toronto's best player, first baseman Carlos Delgado, signed with Florida as a free agent. In front of Ricciardi and Gibbons sit only four players who have made an All-Star team, and only one who has hit 30 home runs, centerfielder Vernon Wells. As if to acknowledge his increased importance to the club, Wells is the one player who dares to sit front and center, casually munching an apple.