You have probably noticed. It happens every year. You buy the newspaper sometime in late February, open to the sports section, and suddenly there is a heavenly light. And the sound of choir voices. And harps. Harps? And lilacs. Or at least the smell of lilacs. And there it is, fairly jumping off the page. The glorious prose of some sports writer falling in love all over again.
Suddenly, instead of hard-nosed accounts of toothless men swinging hockey sticks at one another, there is — dare we say it? — poetry. “I can barely wait,” the sportswriter may write, “for that first delicious crack of the bat, the magical arc of the pop fly . . .” Or: “Every baseball game is pastoral folklore, new with the pristine beauty of a Beethoven symphony” (I am not making this one up; someone actually wrote that.)
You will read how baseball is not merely a game; it’s a slice of Americana. The ball is not a ball, but a mystical white sphere. The bat is straight from God’s woodpile. The field is a grass-covered chessboard. The players are little boys at heart. The managers are little boys at heart, but with less hair. And we, the fans, are reborn infants each Opening Day, when baseball blooms, once again, to remind us that all is truly good in the world.
I am not sure why sportswriters behave this way. But I have an idea. Let’s face it: In mid-February, most guys in this business are still recovering from the Super Bowl (which can take up to a month, depending on how many of those little chocolate footballs you ate) and there they are, leaning over the word processor, looking out the window at “heavy snowfall likely today, with a wind chill of minus-40 degrees” and suddenly they glance up at the calendar and say, “Grrr . . . hockey . . . grrr . . . basketball . . . grrr . . . baseball . . . gr– Wait a minute. Baseball? BASEBALL! FLORIDA! YIPEE! I’M GOING TO FLORIDA! I’M GETTING THE HELL OUT OF HERE! YAY! I LOVE BASEBALL! YIPEE!”
So maybe that’s it. Yes? Or maybe it’s something else.
Maybe they’re genuinely happy about the sport cranking up again. It could be, even as cynical as journalism has become. And I’ll tell you why. Covering baseball is not the same as covering any other sport.
For one thing, you don’t have to watch your shoes for tobacco juice anywhere else. And baseball is in English. Bunt. Steal. Hit and run. There are no “Z-29 flex trap split screen double- zone with a red dog on three break!” Uh-uh. And you can see the ball, which is more than most people can say about a puck.
And for a sportswriter, well, baseball is still the only major sport where you can pull up a stool an hour before the game and talk about life with one of the players and not feel like a complete idiot. After all, they don’t need to bash their heads into a Coke machine to get ready. They just get up, walk to the dugout, and have a seat. Likewise, the manager does not feel compelled to make a big speech about God or America. Usually he’ll just pass the pitcher and say something like, “Get ’em out tonight, will ya? We have family visiting.”
Tom Boswell of the Washington Post tells a story about interviewing Earl Weaver in the Orioles dugout once and suddenly looking up to see the fans rising for the national anthem. Boswell apologized for staying so late, and scrambled to get out. Weaver was genuinely surprised. “Hey, this ain’t a football game,” the manager said. “We do this every day.”
There’s a lot to that sentence, “We do this every day.” I guess it’s what separates baseball from most everything else. The sport is constant. Like a soap opera. And because of that, the relationship between sportswriters and baseball players is different than in other sports. It’s more like relatives living on the same block. You see one another a lot, sometimes to your liking, sometimes not. There’s enough time to fight, make up, fight again, and still get together for Sunday dinner.
Besides, baseball is the only sport where a reporter can stand within inches of the best warm-up ever invented. I am talking about batting practice. You can have your lay-up drills. No one ever put a lay-up out of the park.
And baseball is still the only sport where you’ll find the reporters keeping their own box score. And enjoying it.