Wednesday, February 16, 2005

It's the First Day of Spring!

Actually, it's the first day of Spring Training which means baseball is back and spring is upon us. I always look forward to the beginning of spring training because it not only means that baseball is returning but that it's a time to be optimistic, that opportunity lies ahead in the fresh start of a new season.

My love affair with baseball came relatively late in life. Unlike many other baseball fans, I really didn't catch the bug until I was in college. Growing up in North Carolina in the heart of ACC basketball country meant that basketball was the supreme sport. Football was a way to pass the time until the basketball season started. Baseball was a way to fill in the summer until football started.

I played my fair share of baseball as a kid in the streets of our suburban neighborhood. But I was lousy at it like a lot of other sports. We also played a lot of football in our front yard (much to the consternation of my father who tried in vain to get grass to grow in our yard).

My love affair with baseball started in 1985. I was a sophomore in college. One of my friends was a big fan of the Toronto Blue Jays (to this day I'm not sure why). I had sort of followed the Kansas City Royals for a few years and had great admiration for George Brett. 1985 was, as any true baseball fan knows, the year of the Royals miraculous World Series Championship. It was the first time that a team had come back from a 3-1 deficit in both the League Championship Series (against the Blue Jays, no less) and in the World Series (against the St. Louis Cardinals). It was also the year of Don Denkinger's infamous blown call which breathed new life into a Royals team thought to finished in Game 6 and allowed them to come back and win Game 7.

1986, of course, brought the infamous World Series between the Boston Red Sox and New York Mets. Game 6. Do I need to say more? I can still hear Vin Scully's call of the ball passing between Bill Buckner's legs.

By the time I had finished college in 1988 I had really been bitten by the baseball bug. For one thing, I had discovered baseball literature (yes, there is such a thing). I started reading books like The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn, Eight Men Out by Eliot Asinof (which was made into a fine movie by John Sayles), and Thomas Boswell's How Life Imitates the World Series and Why Time Begins on Opening Day. I even managed to get my hands on The Fireside Book of Baseball which proved to me that great baseball writing was not just confined to sports writers.

1988 was also remarkable for another reason: another great World Series. At least Game 1 was memorable. In the bottom of the ninth inning, Kirk Gibson, who up to that point had not played due to injury, came to bat for the Los Angeles Dodgers against the highly favored Oakland A's. In his only at-bat during the series, he hit a home run to win the game and help the Dodgers go on to win the series. It was like a scene out of a Hollywood movie. That's because it was. The movie was The Natural.

I'd also started spending some time following a local Class A minor-league team: The Durham Bulls. Yes, those Durham Bulls. From the movie Bull Durham. In that same ballpark where the movie was filmed. An interesting side note: I missed my chance to be an extra in the film. I was attending UNC at nearby Chapel Hill when they were filming the movie and a call had gone out for folks in the area who wanted to be extras as spectators at the games to come and fill the stands. A friend of mine did go and she ended up meeting Kevin Costner.

Another side note: I've been to several major league games in my lifetime. However, the intimacy of the minor leagues, especially at the Class A level, is something very special. I firmly believe that my minor league experiences had a lot to do with fostering that early love for baseball.

Having been totally infected with the malady known as baseball fever, the only issue left to be resolved was to which team I would pledge my allegience. By 1989 I was working the graveyard shift in radio and would sleep during the day. As a result, the only baseball that I would get to see would be whoever was playing during the day. That team turned out to be the Chicago Cubs.

They happened to win the National League East title that year. I foolishly believed that I had latched onto a winner. It was not until I dug into their history that I realized the Cubs were cursed. But by that point it was too late.

Living in Chicago for one season only deepened my love affair with the Cubs. I actually made it to Wrigley on the second day of the 1993 season. Although it was bitter cold (what else would you expect in April in Chicago) it was a great game. Our seats were right behind home plate and Jose Guzman led the Cubs to a 1-0 victory with a one-hitter against the Atlanta Braves.

Since the Cubs played most of their games during the day (as they still do today) that meant being able to hear Harry Caray call the games on WGN Radio while commuting home from work.

Although I haven't lived in Chicago for quite some time, I continue to follow them closely and thanks to the Internet I can read the local coverage in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times and the Daily Herald.

Baseball is back. And that's a really good thing.

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