They came blinking into the watery sunlight from their winter hibernation. From across not only Hertfordshire but also north-west London, Buckinghamshire and even Northamptonshire, HBC ball-players took their first tentative steps into the Spring on Sunday. They gathered at Berkhamsted Sportspace to share tales of Christmas, to compare waistlines — and to start work on shrinking them.
This is how the 2011 baseball season began for the Herts club, looking to build on its historic 2010. Little Leaguers joined members of the National League Falcons and several novice players trying the game for the first time. It’s always good to see fresh faces at Spring Training. And it’s good to be reunited with last year’s fellow travellers. For the Raptors, where I played my games last year, the manager is back on board and he hopes to retain the core of the team which showed such promise as they were baptised by fire. Arnott, Gover, Drummond. These could be big names for the club by year’s end.
The Berkhamsted hall was a tremendous facility. We were able to create batting cages with the enormous net curtains, and to separate areas for pitching, infield and outfield drills. We revelled in the smooth surface and the even bounce as we practiced fielding ground balls — and we dreamt that Grovehill might one day be just as placid. I still managed to pick up my first bruise of the year, fielding one of those ground balls with my shin. We also recreated the struggles of Minnesota Twins outfielders as we played the ball’s carom off the lights, and the basketball equipment. All good fun.
More than a full team’s worth of players showed interest in the pitching masterclass offered by Eagles MVP, Darrin Ward. Which is a good sign — at this stage in the season, anything seems possible. One of the highlights of the experience was handling a pristine, white ball from a newly-opened box. There is something special about a new baseball, like the aroma of a fresh pack of coffee. In fact, it has an aroma of its own. And it has a texture unlike the practice balls which are worn to a slippy sheen; it has real seams, standing proud. Is it a bit geeky to even notice the new ball? Maybe. But I think it’s one of the most touchable of the game’s intangibles.
And now how do I feel, 48 hours on? An extraordinary aching which had tried to paralyse my body seems to be fading. Slightly. Playing baseball does have a far harder effect on the body than my usual choice of exercise — such as running, or cycling, or even sometimes the weights. I don’t know if it’s the repeated impact involved. And of course part of it is that I am a year older. When I took up baseball I had recently turned thirty, and was training to run 10k races. Several surgeries, two children and many years later, I still look ahead to a year thinking “This time I’ll get in better shape….” At some point reality dawns that I will probably never recapture that youthful elasticity. But at least you know that the waistline may have got the message.