- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 13, 2008

For the truest and bluest of baseball fans, one simple sentence can dispel all of February’s dreary chill.

Pitchers and catchers report.

Maybe you really care whether Jim Zorn will be the second coming of Joe Gibbs I. Perhaps the prospect of the Wizards or Capitals making the playoffs sends shivers sprinting along your spine. Or it could be that you breathlessly await the onset of March Madness.

That’s fine. But for some of us, sporting life begins again when all those overpaid ballplayers begin hurling horsehides in Florida and Arizona.

In this regard, baseball gets a big break from the calendar. You don’t find folks dreaming of winter when football players convene for sweltering practices in August. But in this otherwise forgettable month when everybody in the East and Midwest is sick to death of freezing to death, baseball’s arrival reassures us that the ice and snow won’t last forever.

It is, after all, the Summer Game.

When you come right down to it, spring training doesn’t amount to much, except for “prospects” hoping to make the bigs. Overpaid jocks work half a day on such exciting things as hitting the cutoff man, practicing rundowns and having pitchers cover first base.

In the old days, spring training gave portly veterans a chance to pare 10 or 15 pounds by working out in rubber suits. Now few guys report out of shape — there’s just too much loot at stake.

By the time exhibition games begin the first week in March, everybody is sick of practice. By the time the season begins around April Fool’s Day, everyone is sick of exhibition games. From a practical standpoint, excluding promotional concerns, spring training could be done nicely in two weeks instead of six.

But then, of course, it wouldn’t be spring training in the traditional sense — and so much of baseball’s appeal is based on tradition.

When I was a kid, meaning w-a-a-y back, the first “ORLANDO, Fla.” dateline in a Washington newspaper was cause for rejoicing. Orlando didn’t mean Disney World then; it meant the inglorious Washington Senators of the 1950s were girding their loins for another terrible season.

Nowadays I feel the same about “VIERA, Fla.” datelines: The Nationals are about to cavort once more, and maybe this time they won’t finish last. It’s no coincidence that hope springs eternal mostly in the spring.

And the more things change …

Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens won’t be at spring training this season, the ugly word “steroids” hanging like a storm cloud over their accomplishments and futures. Johan Santana, Dontrelle Willis and Erik Bedard will be firing fastballs and breaking stuff on behalf of new employers. The two Miguels, Tejada and Cabrera, will be lashing lumber in new locales. And five new managers will pretend they’re awake during weeks of repetitious routines, spitting sunflower seeds all the while.

And all things seem possible.

Maybe in the 100th year of their exile, the Cubs will win a World Series. Why not? It happened to the Red Sox after 86 years in 2004 and to the White Sox after 88 in 2005?

Maybe Bud Selig will resign as commissioner, and a real baseball man like, say, Cal Ripken will get the job and be allowed to rule honestly “in the best interests of the game.”

Maybe an effective and fair drug-testing policy will be implemented, removing the stigma of steroids forever.

Maybe, locally, Peter Angelos will sell the Orioles while there remains a breath of life in what once was baseball’s best franchise.

Maybe the Nats will reach or exceed the .500 mark, demonstrating anew that the Lerner family, Stan Kasten and Jim Bowden are building their franchise wisely. And along the way, our new ballyard will take its place as, literally, a National monument.

All these things won’t happen — but they could. Perchance to dream.

Frank Sinatra, the Babe Ruth of balladeers, once sang this lonely lament: “Spring is here … Why doesn’t my heart go dancing?”

For baseball fans, at the mere thought of distant spring, it does.

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