Spring Training

Today, February 18th of 2016, the sun is shining and the air, though still brisk, is warm enough that I’ve doffed the winter coat in favor of a light fleece jacket.

A corner has been turned.  Pitchers and catchers have appeared on the playing fields of Florida and Arizona.  Nearer home, at the dog park — Ward Acres in New Rochelle — only a few pathways through the woods still bear traces of ice.  I have seen no crocuses yet but do not doubt they are stirring, beginning their climb to sunlight; the lengthening daylight is noticeable now.  I wake to it.  The equinox is one moon away.  We have survived the worst of another winter.

But that worst was so recent.  Only last weekend, you will recall, winds blew cold and temperatures were far below freezing.  When I walked the hound at Ward Acres last Saturday I met just one other human there.  She said “Only the real dog lovers are out today,” and I (not much given to praise even if shared) remarked that people in Minnesota probably would laugh at us.  She disclosed that she’d grown up in Winnipeg but this was a cold day by any standards.  (Winnipeg?  Seriously?  Yes — she said “We laugh at the people in Minnesota!”  Good God.)   I completed my walk with an air of chastened determination, a look I’ve seen on my dog after she’s been pulled off the trail of some squirrel.

The dog walk fell between the hours of 1 and 3 p.m. because that was the period when son James was at an indoor baseball facility, ProSwing, in Port Chester, for his high school team’s weekly winter practices.  When I drove to pick him up the wind still buffeted the car; inside, the heater was blasting as I tried to thaw my fingers and toes.

James has become enthusiastic about baseball, which is gratifying to me.  He enjoys the practices at ProSwing with his buddies.  He is concerned that he will not make the varsity team although he thinks he should make it.  He’s a freshman; I tell him that unless he’s exceptionally skilled, junior varsity is more likely this year.  This comment goes by him like an outside fastball.  All right, optimism is good.

When we get home after 3 o’clock, he’s got a plan: we’re going to the park to practice.  Really?  For sure.

Back last fall, we had practiced quite a bit.  I had very much enjoyed those practices, whether at Flint Park catching his pitching, or hitting fly balls to him in center field, or just in the street in front of our house, having a catch (a hundred in a row, a couple of times, without either of us dropping one).  But last October it was 60 degrees out, and the evenings were full of mist and mellow fruitfulness, as whatshisname put it.  This afternoon, last Saturday, it’s 15 degrees outside with howling winds.  (I’d recite the wind-chill factor here but — much like climate change — I feel we are better off not acknowledging its existence.)

So I bundle up and off we go.  He’s got sweatpants and a light jacket on.  The good news is that we have the park to ourselves.  The field is half covered in snow that has iced over.  The outfield is clear, although the stubborn grass is frozen hard, and we set up there for outfield drills.  He stands facing me a few steps away; I say “Go” and he turns and runs straight out, and after a couple of seconds I hurl the ball over his head, leading him more or less like a quarterback throwing to a receiver, but with a higher arc.  He’s supposed to look up over his shoulder, judge the ball and run under it to make the catch.  This is difficult, not least because my throws are inconsistent at the best of times; they are not helped today by the wind and by my wearing a wool glove on my throwing hand.  So sometimes he turns to look over his right shoulder only to find the ball is to his left.  Other times, it’s hopelessly out of reach ahead of him, or so short he has to put on the brakes and try to come back to it.

The first 20 tries or so, no catches.  But no complaints either.  We persevere.  Eventually he catches one, and soon after, a few more.  Then three in a row!  We keep at it for 30 or 40 minutes.

Then some infield drills, with James running across the diamond from second to third base, or toward first, as I throw it from the catcher’s spot randomly to make him run.  Some of his return throws come in hard enough to hurt my hand – the hand with the fielder’s mitt.  I attribute this mostly to the cold, but to avoid the pain I start trying to catch the ball up in the webbing of the mitt, which causes me to miss some entirely.  He also intentionally bounces some of his return throws off the snow in front of me, amused at how the ball skids along the ice rather than bouncing — this is hazardous to my shins and I start leaping away from these like a matador (even more amusing).

After an hour or so, we still are alone, the day is turning dark and my face is freezing.  When James says we’ve done enough, I agree.  As we drive home it is down to 11 degrees and headed for single digits.

All told, a perfect day for baseball.  More, please.

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