“What if?” is perhaps my favorite phrase. It’s simple, but I can fill hours pondering that question, my brain taking me to often funny, sometimes dark, and always interesting places. There are several others that kick-start the old imaginarium: “In a world where…“, “Do you know how to…”,
Right towards the top of that list, maybe just below “What if” – sits “Pitchers and Catchers Report.”
I read that phrase each February, and suddenly I’m twelve again, lying on my stomach as my news-print stained fingers trace through the names and statistics of my heroes: The Bull, Secretary of Defense Garry Maddox, Steve “Lefty” Carlton, whose devastating slider just made people look silly, and of course Michael Jack Schmidt (whose name will always be said in the honey whiskeyed voice of the late, great Harry Kalas). I watched Schmidt’s home run that helped the Phils clinch the 1980 pennant in my best friends living room, and it remains one of the clearest (and happiest) memory of my life (You can see it here around the 3:03 mark).
On the way to winning their first World Series, those Phillies would participate in one of the greatest National League Pennant series in the history of baseball, ending with a gut-wrenching game five that saw them come back from three runs down against the well-nigh invincible Nolan Ryan. It was a game that every statistician, baseball historian, and computerized outcome said they should have lost once the seventh inning rolled around and they fell behind by three. But they won….against every bit of logic, they won.
And that ultimately is why I love baseball. Because it’s the sport of hope. Nearly every other sport has that moment in the contest when it is impossible for the losing team to come back. You just run up against the limits of human capability or time or physics. But not baseball. You can be 10 runs down, with two outs and two strikes in the ninth; but until that last out is recorded, there is still hope. The season itself, starting with the promise of the new spring and not ending until the leaves have fallen and the world drifts towards the sleep of winter, is long enough that individual loses rarely matter, because there’s almost always another game tomorrow.
In many ways, it’s a writers’ sport, or perhaps more accurately, a poet’s. For there’s poetry in the fluid motion of the pitcher, hurling the rock towards the plate with assassin’s speed, or perhaps, like a puppet-master, letting the wonders of air resistance and gravity make the ball dance. There’s verse in the way the fielders move in unison, each with their part to play. And in the batter, whose every trip to the plate is a heroes journey towards the impossible (for how else can you describe the attempt to connect a rounded, wooden club to a tiny sphere rendered nearly invisible by velocity?) The average batter will fail seventy-five percent of these journeys, and perhaps there’s where the sport most resembles the writers’ world. For what is each submission but another try at the plate? And each rejection, that moment when the ball seems to fly right through the bat or ends up disappearing into some fielders glove. And what is each new story, but that next at bat, that next attempt to create the impossible.
And when the season is finally over, when that last ball settles into the outfielders glove like the moon sliding beneath the clouds, well it’s only a few months before you hear that phrase again: Pitchers and Catchers Report…