As the Jones family flew into the United States last week, what did I most notice out of the plane window?
Was it the skyscrapers? The huge, snaking interstate roads? No, it was the baseball fields. The sight of more and more of those distinctive cut-out diamonds warmed my heart. At one site there were about nine, all clustered together. Not a major league training complex, not a national centre. Just a few diamonds, casually sprinkled in the suburbs. It’s a different world over there.
We actually spent most of the holiday in Canada, where I took in my first Major League game for about five and a half years. The Toronto Blue Jays, who had started the season with a burst of runs and victories, hosted the Oakland Athletics. Jose Bautista was out of the line-up, most of the big stars have long been traded away, but the Blue Jays are still soldiering on. This game was a pitcher’s duel, coming down to a couple of manufactured runs and a wild pitch. Oakland won 2-1.
It didn’t win over the extended family to the joys of the game — “Swing miss, swing miss, swing miss, sit down” is still how my sister characterises baseball — but I certainly enjoyed the experience. And I got within just a few feet of one of those diamonds I had been excited about seeing from the air.
Sadly, while I was gone, the British season got under way without me. And it sounds as if it started badly for Herts. No wins. But it also sounds as if a much depleted Falcons side was only undone by one bad inning, and the Hawks and Raptors faced leading contenders from their divisions. It will take more than a defeat to dissipate the excitement of opening day. I know I can’t wait to get started, and I guess that the players who already have a game under their belts still feel that way too — they want to really get going, and get winning.
Part of the reason for my pwn enthusiasm is the boost from the Herts Spring League. Since we have a weekend off, I thought I would take the opportunity to reach back to the pre-season for some observations which never quite made it to the blog.
First of all I have to ask everyone involved one question — was that fun or was that fun? I usually refer to Spring Training in inverted commas, to suggest in my amusing little way that the experience is often cold and wintry. But it was pretty bright and sunny when I was there, and good baseball was to be found. It was great for Herts to attract another record number of teams for the tournament.
My own ailing physique actually found the experience quite reassuring. Since starting the year by moaning that my 38 year old body seemed to be creaking under the strain, I had tried doggedly to put in hours at the gym or on the streets. I can rarely get to baseball training but I can run home after doing the school drop-off, and my shifts at work have been kind in allowing me to get on the treadmill and lifting (suitably small) weights.
And I felt pretty good after playing two games. I was bleeding after ripping skin off my hand by misfielding a line drive, but what’s a bit of blood between friends? Overall, it’s nothing! I was ready for more.
I made my competitive debut as third base, often referred to as the Hot Corner. And it was like a firing range down there! There were drives over my head, balls along the line, and an infuriating bloop over my head. I managed to stop quite a few, with my legs, my chest and sometimes even my glove. One ball fair knocked me on my backside as it kicked up off the infield grass, and another I had to slide for in the gravel. But they both ended in the glove. The throws were a little too hurried and didn’t make it in time by inches. But that gives me stuff to work on.
For the record and for my ego I should say that I did make some outs, including a tag to cap off some good relay work from the outfield and snag an aggressive Herts Hawks runner.
As for the batting… well, the first against the Hawks was probably the worst I can think of for some time. Hitting second in the line-up and with a runner on first, I would almost never swing at the first pitch. Why would you? Even in any situation I am pretty patient, and won two batting titles basically on the fact that I wouldn’t swing at junk. So did I wait patiently and let my runner steal? Err, no. I watched the pitch, waited, and then the rush of blood became too much to contain so I swung at it. By then, though, it was far too late. It came off like a checked swing and hopped down to the first base man.
Fortunately the runner had enough of a jump that I didn’t hang him out to dry in a double play. And later at-bats were a bit better. My second ground-out to the Hawks was down to Nick Russell’s nifty fielding, and against the Redbacks I got three good hits and I’m pretty sure a walk thrown in too. So there’s another whiff of optimism as I count down to my own Opening Day. See you all there, as soon as I can.