You feel this more in the North than you do in the sun country, but one day late in the winter you hear a voice over the radio. You may be driving a car through slush at the time, with bags of groceries on the floor in front and a bunch of kids in mufflers and galoshes playing Davy Crockett and Mike Fink on the back seat. You don't mind. You're used to your lot. Slush and muddy galoshes are a way of life. Then the car radio, which you have turned on haphazardly, warms up and a familiar voice says, "Two away now. Musial down off third. Cards lead 2-0. The pitch. It's in there! Strike one."
It is the somewhat droning, some-what nasal voice of your favorite baseball announcer, broadcasting a spring training game from Florida. Last summer you cursed him out when he failed for an inning and a half to mention the score of a game you had tuned in on late. But now, in the slush, you love him. His voice is the promised kiss of springtime. It is the voice of the turtle, heralding the return of baseball to the land.
At that moment the baseball fan, like the crocus, pokes his head up through the snow and starts to live again. It is hard to explain, to those who do not understand, how large a role baseball plays in the warm-weather life of the average American male. They know about Eating Hotdogs in the Bleachers, or Getting Out the Old Mitt and Throwing a Few. But they do not know that this, like the flag raising at Iwo Jima, is only a small part of the whole. Actually, most baseball fans attend only a handful of games each season, and the get-out-the-old-mitt school is limited in practice to a small, if vigorous, few.
No, to your average, balding, loose-bellied, sedentary American male, baseball is something to read about, to talk about, to listen to on radio, to watch on television. It occupies an extraordinarily large part of his time. He listens to baseball over the radio while he works in the garden or lolls on the beach. He reads about it in the morning paper the next day. He talks about it at the office. He reads about it in the afternoon newspaper. He talks more about it that night. It is not an obsession. It does not interfere with his business or with his relations with his family or with his bowling or his church-going or his duties as a citizen. But it is always with him. He can visit a funeral parlor, be properly and sincerely sympathetic to the bereaved relatives and depart, feeling the weight of death and the fleeting quality of life. Outside, after a while, someone will say, "Did you see what Kaline did yesterday?" And instantly he is immersed in life again, engrossed in baseball. He knows what Kaline did yesterday, and he knows why it was extraordinary. He knows, further, the possible effect it could have on the pennant race, that continuing drama of the baseball year. He is fascinated.
Why? Because baseball is a game of limitless dramatic possibility, an incredible melodrama, a constant theater of delight, the great American divertissement, a flamboyant and continuing drama bound by certain hard unities: nine innings, three outs, one pennant. Within these unities baseball presents a variety as endless as the waves of the ocean, as intricate as a fugue by Bach.
The voice in the slush awakens the baseball fan to these things, alerts him to an anticipation of the new season, revives the annual excitement of wonder: What will happen this year?
Now, with Opening Day 1956 just a week from Tuesday, what will happen this year? Another Bobby Thomson? Another Bobby Shantz? Another Billy Klaus?
No one knows. But while you are waiting and watching, you might keep an eye out for these things:
Watch the Yankees' pitching staff. In Florida everyone seemed to agree that the Yankees were just too good, that they were "too strong in too many places." But the Yankees, like Achilles, were dipped in the River Styx for strength and they were held by the heel. Their heel is their pitching staff. It was pitching that failed New York in the World Series after the immense depth of bench strength had absorbed most of the stunning loss of Mickey Mantle and Hank Bauer.
This season watch the pitching staff. See if Whitey Ford and Bob Turley and Tommy Byrne are all consistent winners again and whether Don Larsen and Mickey McDermott are ready to back them up. More important, watch Stengel's secondary pitching and his bullpen. He always seems to come up with strength there. If he can't do it this year, all the Mantles and the Berras in the world may not save him.