The longest season: Offseason

There's a famous baseball cliché that's referenced frequently by baseball people during the winter months, attributed to a salty old Hall of Famer named Rogers Hornsby, the greatest hitter in the National League and a reputed racist during the days of segregated baseball. "People ask me what I do in the winter when there is no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring," said Hornsby. While I can't imagine having too much in common with Hornsby, a cantankerous S.O.B. who was known as a mean and nasty ballplayer during a time of mean and nasty ballplayers, on this point we do agree.In the winter when there is no baseball, I also stare out the window and wait for spring. I'm a pretty avid baseball fan and my lifelong devotion to the game has also led to a part-time career as a baseball writer. When I was a kid my favorite television show was The Odd Couple and I wanted to be like the fictional sportswriter Oscar Madison. Anyone familiar with the show who has also seen my apartment would think that I have at least partially accomplished this goal.   While I'm staring out the window waiting for spring, I'm usually peering over the top of my computer screen writing stories in anticipation of the spring season.     Since 1997, April 15 has been Jackie Robinson Day, which is like Baseball's Martin Luther King Day. The All-Star Game is baseball's 4th of July. The Hall of Fame Induction ceremony is baseball's Dia de los Muertos. All of these are considered holy days of obligation in my religion, culminating in the World Series which also triggers the start of the secular holiday season (outside of baseball) followed in succession by Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the real New Year' Day. I consider the Super Bowl the end of the holiday season and great cause for celebration because the football season is finally over. Valentine's Day is of course the most romantic holiday because it usually coincides with the day that pitchers and catchers report to spring training.Last February, my girlfriend Shannon joined me on a trip with my family to Puerto Rico, about a week prior the beginning of the World Baseball Classic, with a bracket of competition scheduled to take place on the island. We were having a nice enough time engaging in tourist activities like touring the old fort and listening to live Salsa music in Old San Juan, and kayaking at night on the bioluminescent bay, but I couldn't help but wonder if the Puerto Rican national team would be working out at nearby Hiram Bithorn Stadium. I asked at the concierge desk if anyone knew if players were practicing at the field, nobody seemed to know. So I took it upon myself to take a $40 cab ride to the ballpark. Shannon who describes herself as, "more of a Charlie fan than a baseball fan," was a good sport in joining me on this wild goose chase. When we arrived there wasn't much going on, some ballpark employees were driving around on service vehicles, the grounds crew was working on the field. I tried in my limited Spanish to ask if anyone knew when the team might be practicing. To the best of my understanding I think one of the guys said Friday. We walked around the ballpark and took some photographs.I'd been here before when the Montreal Expos played some of their "home" games while the team was searching for a new home in 2004. Not wanting to waste the money on the cab ride we walked across the street and went to the biggest mall in Latin America, where I bought a cool "Se habla Beisbol" World Baseball Classic t-shirt and we found a great Mexican restaurant for lunch. We drank a bunch of margaritas and watched the Jodi Arias trial on Court T.V.We returned to the ballpark on Friday and again nobody was there. I guess I don't understand Spanish as well as I think I do. There was some kind of festival going on but it had nothing to do with beisbol. This time we took a cab to the El San Juan hotel where I thought the ballplayers might be staying. On my previous trip I bumped into Frank Robinson in the hotel's casino when he was managing the Expos in 2004. We nosed around the lobby and the grounds. It was a quiet morning and on the way out I struck up a conversation with the doorman and asked if any of the ballplayers were staying at the hotel. He informed us that the El San Juan was the official hotel for the last World Baseball Classic but that this year they would be staying at the hotel where Shannon and I were already staying. Sure enough when we got back to the hotel later I noticed and recognized some of the players hanging out with their families by the pool. Puerto Rico was great and provided a nice segue into the upcoming baseball season. The day after arriving back in Baltimore I was on plane to Tampa to catch up with the Orioles for the first week of spring training and write a travel story for the Baltimore Sun and some blogs for the City Paper.I spent four nights in Sarasota and went to five games at four different ballparks on Florida's west coast. Once again I returned to Baltimore for one night before heading to Arizona for the rest of the spring training season. I used to live in Arizona. My family moved there from Long Island, New York when I was a teenager. At first I was heartbroken because at the time the state did not have a major league baseball team and I was despondent that I would no longer be able to watch my beloved New York Mets play at Shea Stadium. But I soon discovered spring training baseball and developed a romantic affinity for the spring season which initially led me down a derelict, hooky-playing road that eventually veered in the direction of a desire to write about baseball as a career. For the past two decades I've written spring training preview stories and travel guides for newspapers, magazines, team programs, and web sites. It keeps me occupied and engaged with the game during the off-season. And so this is how I spend my time in the winter months, gazing out the window above my computer screen while surfing from web site to web site turning baseball statistics into words and describing the vibrant colors of the spring season in Arizona while the wind is whipping by my window and everything outside is a combination of gray and black and white. If you count spring training it's really only three months between baseball seasons but it feels like a whole year to me. The void is tremendous. I was tending bar in Baltimore on a Sunday when the Orioles' season came to its abrupt halt on September 29, 2013. The baseball season always ends abruptly when your team doesn't make it to the playoffs. In fact it ends abruptly for every team that doesn't win the World Series. In baseball there's always hope until the final out is made, like Yogi says, "It ain't over ‘til it's over," but when it's over, it's really over. I still watched the playoffs and the World Series. I'm not just an Orioles fan, I'm a baseball fan. And the day after the Boston Red Sox beat the St. Louis Cardinals in the final game of the Series on a cloudy gray Halloween morning I picked up a book and began the off-season with a ceremonial reading of the late, great baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti's essay, The Green Fields of the Mind: "It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone."I gathered up the newspaper sports sections, scorecards, game programs, ticket stubs and other baseball ephemera and paraphernalia strewn about my apartment and stacked it all chronologically giving it one last looking over before packing it away in a big cardboard box. It's an annual post season ritual of mine, organizing and putting away the remnants of the season just passed. Sometimes I'll reference the material later if it's relevant to something I'm writing. I know I can find it just as easy on the internet without even having to get out of my chair, but I like doing it the old fashioned way better and it gives me a great sense of accomplishment when I can look for something that happened on a particular day and pull that exact day's newspaper out of a pile within a few seconds. The newspapers do not pile up around my apartment as much during the off-season. I don't read the daily newspapers with the same immediacy in the off-season as I do when there are games being played every day. I don't spring from my bed and turn on ESPN immediately after waking up each morning during the off-season. Life moves at an entirely different pace for me when it is not baseball season, it's almost as if everything is just on hold. I posted a photo on Facebook of the snow covered cars behind my building taken from the window of my apartment before sunrise on January 3rd under a caption reading: "Waiting for baseball season."Most of the comments that followed below were made by people in Arizona who felt compelled to tell me how warm it was there, one posted a weather-report graphic from her cell phone showing that it was 73 degrees in Scottsdale, another mentioned that there were 76 days until spring and my uncle Joe, said, "I like photos of snow. I played golf in short sleeves two days ago." My friend Howard Hart, a long-time Orioles beer vendor was the one person from Baltimore to leave a comment. Howard told a story about a friend of his who was "very near death [with] pancreatic cancer. Stretched out on a Lazy Boy chair, eyes mostly closed in a period of transition." Former Orioles outfielder Paul Blair, who died just a week before, was mentioned, momentarily reviving the dying man who said, "Weren't we lucky to see him," sparking a conversation about Blair's "speed, his glove and his contribution to Baltimore baseball lore… For almost half an hour there was a respite from the smothering specter of death." All of this was written in the comments section under my photo, touching on recurring themes that arise during the off-season. Every winter it seems one old ballplayer or another dies during the off season and later we take account of who's still around on Opening Day. Last year it was Earl Weaver who died of a heart attack while at sea aboard an Orioles fantasy cruise ship on January 19, on the eve of the team's annual Fanfest, turning the event into a huge memorial ceremony. Many of those in attendance walked over to the sculpture garden at Oriole Park to pay their respects and leave offerings at the feet of Weavers' statue, only recently installed during the magical baseball season just past.This year it was Blair who also died of a heart attack on the day after Christmas Day, moving into the black and white past and leaving the three-dimensional world. I opened up a hope chest filled with boxes of baseball cards and dug up three Paul Blairs Looking at his cards seemed to bring him briefly back to life. In the pictures on his cards he's not a 69-year-old man with a bad ticker, he's a nimble young athlete in the prime of life and the world is his Baltimore oyster. But that's what the change of seasons is all about. Old ballplayers die every winter and new ones arrive every spring. I can't wait to see everyone who's still around on Opening Day.

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