End of winter heralds beginning of baseball

Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Quick, what are the five greatest words in the English language? If you're a baseball fan and February rolls around, there's one easy answer -- "pitchers and catchers are reporting."

Nothing gets the juices flowing after a long winter in quite the same way as the first footage from Florida on the nightly newscast of pitchers and catchers arriving at spring training.

Watching them toss the ball around and huff and puff as they go through sprint drills just seems to thaw the spirit.

I know, there has been way too much written about spring training. When people start using phrases like the "rebirth promised by springtime," or say things like "the one time of year when everyone is a future champion," it's easy to tune out the sentimentality.

But despite the best efforts of sports writers, there is still something special about it.

As a former high school pitcher, I found that this was always my favorite time of year. Late winter workouts and throwing programs were mandatory for pitchers and catchers at our school.

Other position players would stop by the gym for a little while. They'd show off their muscles in the batting cages for a few minutes, but for the most part their effort showed that for them the season was still a long way off.

The pitchers knew better. We knew if we didn't build our arm strength in February and March we'd pay the price once the season started.

After the first days of throwing in the gym, my arm would throb in protest. I'd unleash everything I had for the first 10 or 11 pitches, but then I'd hit a wall and muddle through the rest of the workout with a wet noodle for a right arm.

The possibility of throwing for six or seven innings consecutively seemed as impossible then as scaling Everest.

And the problems weren't all about conditioning; I also had plenty of technical issues to overcome.

Curveballs wouldn't break, fastballs floated to the plate like beach balls, and changeups went everywhere but the strike zone. For me to call myself a pitcher in February took a giant leap of faith.

But every once in a while there would be room for some hope. I'd hit the corner of the plate with three straight pitches and it wouldn't be an accident. Or a curveball would take a sharp left slicing through the strike zone and the catcher would nod his head approvingly.

Before long I would realize that I didn't have to sink my arm in ice every night and I'd start fantasizing about opening day.

These little victories were what made the preseason special. Before the cold hard reality of wins and losses set in, it was nice to measure progress in arm-strength and confidence. It was nice not to worry about making the perfect pitch and seeing it drilled over my head.

So baseball fans can't help loving this time of year. We're all sentimental at heart. And now is the time when all the news reports are about comebacks. It's the time when everyone's hard work in the off-season will pay off in wins. It's the time when every pitcher is toying with a new pitch that he thinks will be untouchable.

In short, it's the time when preparation trumps talent, and in a perfect world that's the way it would always be.

TJ Greaney is a reporter for the Southeast Missourian.

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