Forget romance, give me the meat
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

I love spring. I love it for the simple fact that it's the beginning of the season, that it raises the curtain on 162 games worth of drama and doldrums, ebbs and flows. And I love it all the more this year, because when I told my editors I wanted to write a season-long, fan's notes column, they said, "Go for it."

But much as I love spring, I've got a confession to make: I don't trust it.

The same thing happens every year: A handful of blooming bulbs poke through the dirt, a bunch of robins come snooping around in the yard, and a few hundred pitchers and catchers report -- and the next thing you know folks everywhere are whistling "Zippity-Doo-Da" and smiling like somebody slipped a little something special in the punch.

Jim Thome
You know crusty old newspaper writers in Philly are penning odes to the hope Jim Thome brings to the Phillies.

Hard-nosed writers and columnists -- guys who have gotten by on donuts and cynicism for years -- write sugar-sweet odes to the transcendent smell of leather and grass. Every daily paper, weekly mag, Pennysaver, Moose Lodge bulletin and church program runs a charming essay about how the game will renew your weary soul and guide your wayward heart home. Scientists -- people who cringe when someone says, "I believe" or "I feel" -- trot out fuzzy little theses detailing the similarity between the muffled pop made when a ball lands perfectly in a baseball glove and the sound of a mother's heartbeat heard by a fetus in utero.

Estranged fathers and sons watch "Field of Dreams" together and cry. Crabby old ladies who'd sooner die than see their flower beds trampled invite the neighborhood kids to have a catch on their front lawns. Screws and inmates swap Little League stories and Johnny Cash records. Pep bands all over the country march down the hall and through the cafeteria playing a "Centerfield"-"Glory Days"-"Take Me Out to the Ballgame" medley.

"Expert observers" tell us that every kid in camp is a prospect, a scrapper, a chemistry guy, or one of those players who just brings a lot of positive energy to the park every day; that old guys are reborn; that young guys show the kind of maturity they've lacked in the past; that arms feel good, swings are hitchless, and the skipper has a real rapport with the squad.

Every team has a chance to win (except Tampa and Milwaukee, of course, but the Rays have that Lou's-come-home-to-teach-the-youngsters thing happening, and the Brewers, well, they've got those fine brats and beers).

And every citizen of every hamlet, city and suburb in America, comes from a place called Hope.

The game and the season are bigger and stranger than spring hope springing eternal. Think about the Angels last year: No way anyone, not even the most fully vested Anaheim fan, ever dared hope for that ending. The game trumped hope, made it seem na´ve, showed it what flights of fancy really look like.

It's too much. My spirit sags under the saccharine coating on everything. I walk the streets looking for DeNiro and a bat, anxious for a Capone-style mercy killing.

Do I ever feel the rush of spring sentimentality myself? Sure, I'm not immune. My heart gets a little arrhythmic when shots of Florida and Arizona come across my TV screen. And I've been known to ramble somewhat incoherently each March about the 16-part scenario -- featuring projected ERAs, possible break-out productivity from young offensive players, key dates in the "Farmer's Almanac," the wishes of the dead, the exigencies of karma, the laws of probability, a little dumb luck, and so on -- in which the Dodgers can and will win the pennant and the Series.

But even in those moments when I'm caught in hope's riptide, I'm suspicious of the feeling and a little disgusted with myself.

Hope is too easy and common in the spring. There's nothing earned about it, nothing hard-won. People sample it like it's peanuts in a bowl at a bar, like it's nothing. The whole season of optimism feels false.

And kind of desperate, too. Wounded spirits, guys digging out from under 27 inches of snow, folks unhappy in their jobs, and young couples wondering where the spark went --- they cling to spring, in a crazed, too-tight way. True believers are hard to find, but want-to/need-to believers are a dime a dozen come spring.

I can empathize with someone looking to lose, or even find, himself in the game. We've all been there. But what gets me is the sense each spring that a bath in the sacred baseball waters is compulsory. Automatic. Unquestionable. If you're not thrill-of-the-grass giddy and optimistic right now, you're a freak. You're a color-fiend in "Pleasantville." If you haven't hitched yourself to some comer with a live arm, or some plugger who's finally getting a shot at the big time, people look at you all sideways and suspicious. Spring fever is to genuine hope what Valentine's Day is to love: a routine, a script, a ritual and a habit, and a more-or-less manufactured one, at that.

Francisco Rodriguez
Bring on Opening Day, when we'll find out if Francisco Rodriguez remains as dominant as he was in October.

Maybe the worst part of all the put-on idealism of spring is that it reduces the game to a fantasy. Like Rob in "High Fidelity," I'm tired of the fantasy, because it doesn't really exist and there are never really any surprises in it. It's the same old sweetness-and-light, bubblegum pop version of the game every year at this time.

Once the season gets rolling, there are plenty of surprises. You get experimental jazz, deep blues and punk. You get a crazy, eclectic opera spun out over days and weeks and months.

Give me the season.

The game and the season are bigger and stranger than spring hope springing eternal. Think about the Angels last year: No way anyone, not even the most fully vested Anaheim fan, ever dared hope for that ending. The game trumped hope, made it seem na´ve, showed it what flights of fancy really look like.

And the game and the season are harder than spring hope would have us believe, too. Think about Darryl Kile and Jack Buck, and the unfathomable blow their losses dealt to teammates, friends and fans last year.

At it's best, baseball isn't a warm memory of playing catch with your pop, it isn't an ideal, and it isn't a poem. It's a drama, a novel, a big beast of a story full of hundreds of characters, playing out alongside your own story and the stories that surround your world. It isn't an anecdote to life, it's something that insinuates itself into your life, something you carry around with you, something that inspires and troubles, charms, frustrates and sometimes mystifies you.

Will David Cone's arm hold up? Can he forget, and remember, enough of what he once was to craft some sly new New York version of himself?

David Cone
Does David Cone have anything left in that crafty right arm of his?

That's what I want to know. That's the sweet, tortured balance I want to hang in every week.

Will Frankie Rodriguez keep throwing cry-to-your-mama stuff that only flirts with the zone? Will he get nervous or frustrated? Can he avoid thinking, worrying and feeling the moment for a whole season?

With the bends and rolls -- of his ball, of his head and his heart -- that's how I want to move from spring to fall.

I want to swoon when Adrian Beltre swoons, feel the rush Erubiel Durazo feels on a summer hot streak, and tap into the cool Greg Maddux seems to breathe in and out every time he makes a trip to the hill.

I want the meat of the season over the romance of the spring.

Maybe Bonds looks mortal for a stretch. Maybe the Phillies can't score runs and the Padres score them in droves. Maybe the Cubs are for real.

Could be Les Expos go undefeated in Puerto Rico, Casey Fossum throws 37 consecutive scoreless innings in July and August and Bartolo Colon, um, doesn't.

Might be that for one delicious spell in May, there's a strange sort of portal between New York and Minneapolis, and every loss in the Big Apple goes through a cosmic fold and comes out in the Twin Cities looking like a shiny, happy win.

Perhaps Jamie Moyer confesses to actually being Jamie Moyer Jr., the 21-year-old son of the former major league pitcher, thereby explaining that miraculous Moyer stamina and strength.

Or somebody I really like and root for gets hurt bad and is out for the season, and I go into a three-day funk at the news, missing all over again the close friends and family I've lost over the years.

Or the Dodgers lose seven straight, I have writer's block the way a baby gets croup -- all up in the chest and seemingly permanent -- and every word out of my mouth strikes my wife as an insult. Then they go on a little run, maybe four games and, just like that, words are flowing like water and I'm a silky-smooth romantic at home.

And maybe, if I'm lucky, some kid I've never heard of gets called up in September and becomes such a part of me by October 1 that I start setting a place at the table for him, all Elijah-like.

Or maybe none of this will happen. Maybe it will all be different. I have no idea, really (which is, of course, the beauty of the thing).

But what I do know is that there'll be dozens of stories, countless little weirdnesses and sorrows, and a passel of giddy, brilliant moments in the weeks and months to come.

And I know they'll pepper and prick my consciousness, and start to become some central part of the language I speak and the world I see this season.

I know this feeling: when the game isn't a choice or a pose or a party all dressed up in hope, when the baseball synapses fire automatically and the baseball reflexes are involuntary.

This is a feeling I know. This is something I trust.

Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.





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