Recently my new book, “George H.W. Bush: Character at the Core,” was released, a biography of my former boss, 41st U.S. president, and fellow Boston Red Sox fan. This is the fourth of my 16 books to accent politics. The others concern mostly baseball — outside of family, the subject siring the most joy of my life.
Broadcaster Bob Costas and I once discussed what baseball meant to our mid-20th century childhood. “Everything,” we agreed. I played and later coached Little League, the Everest of my career, and watched, read about, and heard voices like the Yankees Mel Allen and CBS’s Dizzy Dean — musical, histrionic, their sport at high tide.
So how often have I visited February-March spring training, when Major League players exercise, compete and stir interest in the coming year? Zero. Many reasons forge no excuse. Our children were in school. Some book deadline loomed. Bills to be paid one-upped a trip to baseball’s Brigadoon. I inhaled spring training from a distance, mythic and abstract.
“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,” Sports Illustrated’s Robert Creamer wrote when I was young. You might be at home, stuck in traffic or sloshing through the snow: No matter. The voice was your team’s announcer, calling a spring training game from Florida or Arizona. “(He) was the voice of the turtle, heralding the return of baseball to the land.”
Since the 1860s, professional baseball teams have repaired south of the Mason-Dixon Line to escape the North’s endless cold and frozen terra firma. For many, spring training is the game’s outlier tryout before opening on Broadway — assuming you like baseball, a rite as familiar as your club’s batting order, beloved in many ways.
Spring training means comedy. One year the Giants drove to Tucson for a game with the Indians. Sensing a large crowd, Cleveland general manager Gabe Paul, of Rochester, hesitated to postpone the match. As rain continued, someone said to Paul, “Well, Gabe, do you think it’s going to stop?” The Indians GM responded with unarguable logic: “Always does.”
It means family. In 1949, two years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line, his Brooklyn Dodgers moved into Vero Beach, Florida’s “Dodgertown.” Later, Don Drysdale Drive adjoined Roy Campanella Boulevard. Duke Snider Street led to Vin Scully Way. Wrote Sports Illustrated: “Dodgertown did not invent spring training. It only perfected it.”
Spring training means improbability. Ex-Duke outfielder-turned-Washington Voice Bob Wolff pitched batting practice, even hit himself. Once he lined off the left-field fence. That night the whole team refused to speak to him. Finally a player said, “That was a horrible thing you did to that pitcher, Bob. After your drive, they released him. They said that if Wolff can hit him, he must have nothing left.”
It means poignancy. The Dodgers’ 1958 departure for Los Angeles broke Brooklyn’s heart. In 2008, L.A. moved camp from Vero to Arizona. Dodgertown, to announcer Scully, “greatly associated with the Brooklyn Dodgers” but “now far, far away from our fan base,” expired: “the final severing of the umbilical chord with Brooklyn” — all bricks and mortar, gone.
Spring training can mean odd plays, baseball cards and fielder crouched, batter cocked, the pitcher draped against the grandstand — above all, the surety that there is no place on earth that you would rather be.
At least I hear that’s true. Next March, I find out for sure. Forget snow, blow. Florida, here I come.
Curt Smith is the author of 16 books. His column appears twice monthly in Messenger Post newspapers and websites.