The boys of spring

I know, I know, we're deep in the heart of March Madness. But I want to talk about baseball.

Why? Because I always want to talk about baseball, and because we're also deep in the heart of spring training.

Spring training is what hope looks like. It's green grass and fresh-faced rookies and split squads and sunshine. Teams flock south like so many cleat-wearing birds, to audition new talent and work in new pieces and hone familiar roles. Everyone is undefeated. No injuries have depleted your lineup (unless you're this year's Yankees), no losing streaks have sapped your morale. No curses exist in the Grapefruit or Cactus leagues. My team's chance to win it all is just as good as yours.

Everyone has a chance in March. Even the Royals.

Spring training has a special place in my four-seamed heart for several reasons. One is one of my earliest sports-related memories- that of journeyman Jay Johnstone, wrapping up his well-traveled career with the Dodgers and dripping juice from the apple he was eating onto the program I held out for him to sign. I think I was seven or eight. I didn't really know who Jay Johnstone was, but he was a baseball player, and my daddy was excited.

Many years later, spring training became a regular, much-anticipated part of my sports reporter life. In the halcyon days of broader budgets and looser reins, a colleague and I would travel to Disney's Wide World of Sports every March to get a gander at the newest crop of players likely to wind up on the opening day roster of the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, the then-high level A franchise of the Atlanta Braves our paper had chronicled since the team's formation in 1999. We picked up the rental car, a sack of Bojangles biscuits and 95 South, let loose for four days to go see what we could see and write what caught our fancy.

At spring training, I met a long, loose-limbed Adam Wainwright, the Braves' first-round pick in the 2000 draft, among the infield sprinklers. He was all yes ma'am and Georgia drawl as he bashfully shared that he'd purchased a new Denali with a signing bonus that made him an instant millionaire, then invested the rest according to his parents' instructions.

At spring training, I'd chat up the Pelicans' coaching staff - venerable hitting coach Bruce Dal Canton, straightforward hitting coach Rafael Belliard, wisecracking traveling instructor Sixto Lezcano. Lezcano was quick with a joke or a compliment and usually game to translate for the growing influx of Latin American players, including 19-year-old  shortstop phenom Wilson Betemit, about whom I wrote a baseball tab (special section, tabloid format) cover story without benefit of a one-on-one conversation. 

At spring training, I ate soft, crumbly press box cookies on game days and watched the stars of the day take a few warm-up turns at bat before giving way to steely-eyed, hungry late-round picks and free-agent signees. At spring training, I talked to longshot pitching prospect Scott Sturkie, whom I'd covered at a local college and whom I'd watched handle with uncommon grace one of the most crushing sports moments I'd ever witnessed, as he tried once again to catch on with a team in the Braves' organization. A week or so later, I talked to Sturkie again as he explained, with a sad but certain resolve, why he was giving up his big-league dream. 

At spring training, I talked to a plethora of people about a myriad of subjects with the same theme running through those conversations like a deep vein of gold: hope. I wrote pages and pages of copy with different words but the same subject: hope. I watched young men born, first in the late 70s, then the 80s, and finally the 90s laugh and goof off and bear down in pursuit of the thing they gripped as tightly as their butter-soft gloves: hope.

Spring training is not totally isolated from harsh reality. Ask Zack Greinke, signed to a $147 million contract this offseason by my Dodgers and sent back to Los Angeles on Monday because of soreness in his right elbow. Ask Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, who joined a growing list of pinstriped players on the DL when he broke his ankle in a skydiving accident last week.

But it is set apart, thawing after a long winter in its own suspended sliver of time. It's not the court-rushing frenzy of March Madness. It's not the hype and hoopla of the Super Bowl. It's not anything other than what it is, and it's beautiful. 

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