I’ve decided there are three junctures of the Spring Training schedule that make the endless nature of the exhibition interregnum worthwhile.
First, there’s that inaugural Spring Training broadcast, when those voices you value most greet you for the first time in a proper context in months. You might have heard them announcing hockey or college basketball but, respectfully, screw that. You are baseball to us. Thank you for speaking as you should.
Next, there’s that moment when March’s behavior seems utterly normal. It means we’ve been at it just long enough to get comfortable with the season whose pieces are being put into place but not so long that we can’t stand to more than glance at fake games that don’t count. There was a night a few weeks ago when I told my wife I’d get to something as soon as I knew for sure that this game I’m watching is going to be called a tie — that’s Spring thinking, and you know you can’t live like this much longer. (I believe the formal name for this condition, when you realize what a crock Spring Training has become, is Stocker-Home Syndrome.)
Finally and best of all is the spring game that waves you around third base, when the whole thing feels closer to real than it did the game before and the calendar confirms you’re not kidding yourself. From this game on, you can tolerate staring at St. Lucie and the insertion of random minor leaguers to fill out eighth innings and going without otherwise engaged Howie or Gary for another day because you know the berm is turning.
Saturday was my “finally” day, the day the plates started shifting from store-brand plastic to the good china. On Saturday, 2013 began to inch closer not in theory, but in “only nine days to go!” actuality. On Saturday, the radio wasn’t wasting my time with substitutions and diversions, but was engaging me with an almost authentic baseball game. On Saturday, the sun filtered through the living room window as if to get the lighting right for what have gone from numbingly repetitive rehearsals to legitimate out-of-town previews. There are a few performances left to get the kinks out and then the curtain rises and stays risen for six months.
It’s so close, I’m looking for a spoon with which to taste it. I can even detect a soupçon of confidence in the outfield if I swish the ingredients around in my head enough.
They’re all we’re getting, apparently. Lucas Duda, Collin Cowgill, Marlon Byrd, Mike Baxter and my man Jordany Valdespin (the more they write about was a misfit he is, the more I’m determined to go down in flames with him) will constitute, by definition, a major league outfield very soon because in 1960, a franchise was awarded to some rich New York people and membership dues have apparently been kept up ever since. That is to say that when Terry Collins writes whatever combination of the above names into left, center and right, these cats no longer loom as elements of the worst outfield ever.
No, they get every chance to prove it. Or prove they’re not it. They can stop depressing us on paper and begin impressing us on grass. Or they can get on with the business of sucking out loud volubly enough that next thing ya know, Kirk Nieuwenhuis will be deemed fully healed and Matt den Dekker judged competent to hit. If we comport ourselves like real ladies and gentlemen and eat all our convenience fees, Stand-Pat Sandy Alderson — who was going to get Michael Bourn or Justin Upton so much that he didn’t need to keep Scott Hairston around — might even grope about 29 other organizations for a marginal upgrade.
It’s an unfortunate “army you have” situation as we enter the 2013 campaign, but our outfield won’t always be so Rumsfeldian in nature. Maybe it will be the army we wish to have if enough things don’t go wrong, never mind actually go right. Duda’s back to walloping and allowing us to dream he’s concocted from the same Chemical X that made the Powerpuff Girls so formidable. Everybody’s in love with the way Cowgill “plays the game,” what with running hard and stuff (doesn’t take much to get a reputation, apparently). Byrd, we’ve been reminded by management, was an All-Star as recently as the dawn of this decade. Baxter is Mike from Whitestone, so lay off. And Jordany’s only done everything right on the field all Spring long despite being abandoned on the bench by Collins last September when that would’ve been a good time to see what he could do on a daily basis besides wear the wrong shirt into the clubhouse and no cup outside of it.
Individually or together the supposedly Feeble Five could surprise some cynics. Or the lot of them could play to common expectation. But the good part of that possible outcome is their performance will be on the record and it’s not likely they’ll be planted in the outfield forever. Occasionally Alderson does act for the present, like when he discharged several underperforming relievers in early 2011 as soon as it was disgustingly obvious they were not helping matters. Two years later we’re still constantly shuffling the bullpen deck, but who even notices when the outfield is so terrible? Or not so terrible, maybe it will turn out.
Don’tcha see the beauty, though? We’re going to get a handle on whether the anti-hype is accurate. We really are. We may not like the handle…or the handle that comes after it…or the one after that. But in just over a week, it will be a real handle discerned from real games in the real season.
For better or worse or somewhere in between, the five Mets outfielders and I are ready.