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The ides of March are upon us and with them the promise of spring.  After a long cold winter in the Northeast, the faint glimpses of warmth and rebirth are exciting to the senses.  If spring is in the air, it can mean only one thing, baseball.  Grab your bat, glove and ball, let’s play some ball!

Way back on February 2nd, the groundhog let us know that we were destined for 6 more weeks of winter…well those 6 weeks are almost up, so that means it’s time for spring.  Early last week, it didn’t look very promising, what with a foot of snow falling here in the Northeast.  The mind was filled with the thought “If you can’t trust a large rodent these days, what good is left in this world?”

As the week progressed, the power of the groundhog took control of the weather, and temperatures started to rise…the rains came and helped remove the snow from the ground…and for a day or 2, there were sunny skies, temps in the 50s…and the faintest hint of spring in the air.  And that was all it took…

After a long cold winter, that first hint of spring…whether it’s the sight of the first bud on a tree…the sound of rushing water in a creek…feeling the warm sun on your skin…the taste of the first Cadbury egg…or the first whiff of the sweet smell of spring.  When the first sign of spring hits you, the winter is forgotten. (Last year at this time, the subject was the line drive)

Smells are the strongest trigger for my memory.  Catch a whiff of freshly mowed grass…and suddenly I’m 14 years old, mowing the lawn in 90 degree heat.  Smell a turkey cooking…and instantly I’m 12 years old in my grandma’s kitchen at Thanksgiving.  The scent of a fire…and I’m surrounded by my family in a campsite, looking up at the stars.  But that first hint of spring…a scent I can’t even really describe…that always makes me think of only one thing…

Baseball.

Last week when I caught that whiff, the first thing I did was throw all my softball gear into the trunk of my car.  Winter is putting up a last fight…there was cold rain all weekend, followed by some freezing temperatures…but it doesn’t matter, baseball and spring are in my brain now. 

When my nose caught a whiff of spring, it wasn’t just a general idea of baseball…it never is…that simple smell transported me to the age of 11.  Running out into the back yard, a few patches of snow still on the ground…glove in hand…shouting back at my dad to hurry up.  That first toss of the ball, and the returning first catch of the ball…the impact stinging the hand due to the cold.  It was a time in my life when I had no doubt what I was going to be when I grew up…the starting Shortstop for the Chicago White Sox.

All the research had already been done.  The great Luke Appling and his .388 team record average.  Luis Aparicio and his glove was the stuff of legend in my head.  And a new face had just arrived on the scene, rookie of the year, Ozzie Guillen.  While Appling’s hitting amazed me, Aparicio and Guillen held my imagination, there is nothing a beautiful in baseball as a great defensive play.  The home run is awe inspiring, a pitcher blowing a fastball by a hitter is breath taking, but watching a shortstop go deep into the hole, snag the ball, turn and fire the ball to first?  There isn’t a painting in the Louvre that can match that for beauty.

These types of plays can be seen every day in the game of baseball…Orlando Cabrera, Scott Rolen, Placido Polanco, Derek Lee, Ichiro Suzuki, Grady Sizemore, Carlos Beltran, Russell Martin and Greg Maddux make the great defensive play routine.  But one of the biggest crimes of the steroid era is that the low scoring pitching duel has been trivialized.  There are few things in this world that hold my attention as completely as a well played 1-0 baseball game.

The steroid era has taught us that offense if king.   The more the ball flew out, the more excited we were supposed to get.  But is there anything more boring than a 14-2 game?  Even 12-7 isn’t a fun game to watch.  When the ball is flying out of the park, any mistake can be erased with one swing.  That very fact causes a game to be played in a sloppier manner.  And that sloppy play is one of the biggest crimes of the steroid era.

Two of the great things about baseball…

1.  You’re never out of a game; any comeback is possible because there is no clock.

2.  And when a game is tight, every single movement is important.

The steroid era has put the emphasis on the Home Run and the Strikeout.  While these things feed reason number 1, they completely ignore number 2.  In fact it goes even further…even in a 0-0 game, everyone is waiting for a home run to decide the game…and because of that, we miss what is truly exciting about baseball.

As a 0-0 game moves later and later in innings, every play takes on more and more importance.  A simple ground ball that is beat out for a hit…taking a wrong step for a fly ball, the catch is made, but the throw is slow to come…a throw arriving mere inches to the wrong side of a base…misjudging a pop foul and allowing a potential out to fall harmlessly to the ground.  Every one of these plays can be forgotten in a slugfest…erased by another mammoth blow…but find yourself in a pitching duel and the true beauty of baseball is revealed.

Watching a pitching duel or seeing a perfect defensive play is one thing, but being involved in one makes you truly appreciate the pressure that Derek Jeter, Joe Crede, David Eckstien, or Criag Biggio is under every play.  Can you make the plays they make?  No.  There is a reason they are in the Majors and you’re not.  But the importance of each play is the same at every level.  It’s not the World Series, just a beer league game

You lob the ball back to the pitcher, as you look over at the runner at 3rd.  It’s the last half of the last inning, in a 1-0 game.  Your hand raises above your head with 2 fingers extended…”2 away!”  Your shout is acknowledged by the Left Fielder.

Your feet carry you back to the familiar spot worn in the dirt, a collection of cleat marks that distinguish your preferred starting point.  A small rock peeks out of the dirt on your right, a nudge with your cleat unearths it, and you stoop over to pick it up.  A quick flick of the wrist later, and the rock is flying over the foul line in left, lessening the chance of a bad hop.

All eyes on the field focus on the batter approaching the plate.  He digs into the batters box, and stares ahead at the pitcher.  You start to settle into your crouch.  Feet shoulder width apart, knees bent, glove just below the knees…then something catches you eye.

The batter closes his stance, moving his front foot closer to the plate…”he’s going the other way” flashes through your mind…you take a few steps toward second, and peek over to the other fielders…they’ve seen it too.  Your eyes stay focused on the batter, as you sink back into your crouch.  As your knees flex, you bend and work your glove...it offers no real edge in fielding the ball, but it feels right.

The pitcher starts his motion; you rock to the balls of your feet.  You glove and free-hand twitch in anticipation.  All eyes follow the ball as it leaves the pitchers hand, but you focus on the batter.  You see his eyes flash as he sees the pitch coming.  He rocks back and he coils his weight in prep for unloading on the ball.  The ball closes in on its target and the batter’s hands start into action…his front foot strides forward…and then you catch your second clue…

His stride is towards you, the ball is on the inside, and he has opened his swing to hit it.  The mind starts to become aware of this clue as the bat makes contact with the ball.  A burst of dirt sprays forth as the ball hits the ground.  Before you know where the ball is, your feet have already sent you in motion.  They pivot on the balls, and the cleats dig in, as your legs propel you forward toward the on coming ball.

Every instinct in your body is now carrying you…there is not a single clear though when you’re chasing down a ball…it’s all instinct.  Every groundball you’ve ever chased…from the first to the one you tacked down to start the inning…is running through your mind right now.  All those balls your dad used to hit you in the backyard…every ball that hit off an rotting apple in your backyard…all those balls hit to you by your little league coach….every time a coach yelled at you to stay in front of the ball…all those nights that you kept at it until there was no light left in the sky…it all runs through your head as you race toward that ball.

On its 3rd hop, the ball is closing in on you…your left foot strides across your body to close the final gap, and your glove…already low to the ground…moves into position for the ball.  The runner at 3rd is on his way home, but your focus narrows on the ball.  The ball makes one more dive for freedom, taking a nasty short hop right near your feet.  But the glove is too fast, it stabs downward, and the ball is enveloped in the pocket.

Before the glove even closes, your eyes draw focus on first base.  Your right foot plants hard, and your left foot pivots opening your body up for the throw.  The glove continues to pull the ball up across the body…the throwing hand starts moving in for the kill.  As your right foot flexes to transfer all your momentum into the throw, your feet pivot towards first.

Your eyes catch the batter coming into view, the first basemen isn’t to the base yet.  No time to wait, you draw a bead on where the glove will be.  Fingers wrap around the ball in the glove and pull the ball back up towards your ear.  The glove arm peels away from the ball, lending more momentum to the throw.

As the ball reaches the height of its travels, the first basemen plants his foot and turns towards you and starts to raise his glove.  The momentum coiled in your back leg starts to unload into the throw.  The arm flings forward, and the ball starts a new journey.

Reaching out towards the first basemen’s waiting glove, the ball is released.  Hand and arm continue forward in a follow through, and the eyes follow the flight of the ball.  With the ball in flight, that split second seems to take years.

The runner at third is steps from the plate, if the ball to first arrives late, the game is tied.  Everyone on the field and in the stands inhales, except the first basemen whose complete focus is on the ball hurling towards him.  He strides out with his front foot and glove to meet the ball…coaxing a fraction of extra time from the play.

Dust is kicked up near the bag as the runner approaches, and in one last stretch the glove closes around the ball.  A beat later a second foot lands on the base, but it’s too late.

“You’re OUUUUUUTTTTT!!” screams the ump, as his thumb flies up into the air.

Beyond the base, the runner collapses to the ground…as you leap into the air pumping a fist.  The ball still squeezed in this glove, the first basemen runs toward you.  The great inhale that happened during the ball’s flight is released.  Cheers from one side, cries of agony from the other.  Another close game ends the only way it can, in victory and defeat.

If you’ve been there…if you’ve made some similar play…whether it’s in a softball game…tee ball…wiffle ball…little league…high school ball…then you know what I’m talking about.  That moment when the final out of a hard fought game is made, all the tension from the previous innings is released…and the sky is a little bluer, the grass is a little greener, and spring has finally arrived.

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That’s it for this week.  With the NCAA Tournament next week, I’m going to change things up.  First off, look for a post from me on Monday about making your picks…and then on Thursday and possibly Friday, I’ll be doing a live blog during the games instead of my regular blog.  I’ll send out the link first thing on Thursday morning with my opening thoughts, and as we move through the games, everyone can chime in on the games in comments, and I’ll continue to share my general thoughts in the blog.

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