Pitchers and catchers


At about this time every year I begin to run into people at the post office or grocery store who say hello, and then blurt out, “Pitchers and catchers,” a phrase guaranteed to produce grins from both of us.

Baseball season per se doesn’t begin until April, but the teams all “go south” to Florida or Arizona for the ritual of Spring Training in March. And before the entire teams gather, they send their pitchers down to get their arms loose and ready. They need to throw to someone, so the catchers go, too. “Pitchers and catchers” means spring, green grass, and shirt-sleeve weather are all at least out there on the horizon. Not to mention the joy of rookie phenoms, the daily drama of building pennant races, and, best of all, the patterned elegance and beauty of the game itself, which Annie Savoy, played by Susan Sarandon in the movie Bull Durham called a “religion full of magic, cosmic truth, and the fundamental ontological riddles of our time.” Annie is nuts, but we know what she means.

To New Englanders my age, “Pitchers and catchers” is a balmy zephyr bearing a memory of childhood, a whiff of neatsfoot oil and glove leather, and a promise that we will eventually be warm again and rooting for the Red Sox. Even now, no longer innocents about the professional game and its often seedy denizens, “Pitchers and catchers” always makes us grin.

*

I can’t help it. More Annie Savoy, with notes: “I believe in the Church of Baseball. I’ve tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones. I’ve worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I heard that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn’t work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology. You see, there’s no guilt in baseball, and it’s never boring… which makes it like sex. There’s never been a ballplayer slept with me who didn’t have the best year of his career. Making love is like hitting a baseball: you just gotta relax and concentrate. Besides, I’d never sleep with a player hitting under .250… not unless he had a lot of RBIs and was a great glove man up the middle. You see, there’s a certain amount of life wisdom I give these boys. I can expand their minds. Sometimes when I’ve got a ballplayer alone, I’ll just read Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman to him, and the guys are so sweet, they always stay and listen. ’Course, a guy’ll listen to anything if he thinks it’s foreplay. I make them feel confident, and they make me feel safe, and pretty. ’Course, what I give them lasts a lifetime; what they give me lasts 142 games. Sometimes it seems like a bad trade. But bad trades are part of baseball—now who can forget Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas, for God’s sake? It’s a long season and you gotta trust. I’ve tried ’em all, I really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball.”

Notes:

  • Women who, uh, hang around with ballplayers have been called “Baseball Annies” for well over a hundred years.
  • Baseballs do have 108 double stitches (sometimes counted as 216 stitches).
  • .250 is a pretty weak batting average, which is simply the percentage arrived at by dividing the number of base hits by the number of official at-bats. .300 has long been the standard of excellence.
  • An RBI is a Run Batted In, a run directly attributable to the action of a batter. 100 over the course of a season has long been the standard of excellence.
  • “A great glove man up the middle” would mean a shortstop, a second baseman, or a center fielder. The old, largely true, rule of thumb is that a good team needs, defensively, “to be strong up the middle,” so a player there producing runs and playing great defense would be valuable regardless of batting average. (Actually, a player at any position who produced runs and played great defense would be valuable, regardless of BA, which isn’t really that important.)
  • Walt Whitman actually watched and wrote about baseball. He probably played it a little, too. Emily Dickenson probably didn’t do any of those things, although I find the idea wonderful to contemplate.
  • 142 games is a minor league schedule. The major league schedule was 154 games for much of the 20th century, but has been 162 games since the early 1960s.
  • Frank Robinson was an long-time, all-time great right fielder, primarily for the Cincinnati Reds and (after being traded for Milt) the Baltimore Orioles. Pappas was a good pitcher for a few years. A famous steal for the O’s.


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