Sunday, April 5, 2009

Buy Me Some Peanuts and Crackerjack...

CBB InfieldImage by adamr.stone via Flickr

Two of the four sweetest words in the English language are "Opening Day". The other two? "Play ball!" All four will resound tonight as the 2009 Major League Baseball Season gets underway at Citizen's Bank Ballpark in Philadelphia. My beloved Philadelphia Phillies, defending "World F---in' Champions"(in Chase Utley's words)host the Atlanta Braves in a game that will be televised nationally on ESPN at 8:00PM EDT.

This is one of my favorite times of year. The beginning of a new baseball season marks a time of renewal: it is the one day when every team in either league is on equal footing. It means Spring is really upon us (despite the whipping winds and occasional temperature plunges we're still experiencing in my neck of the woods) and Summer is not far away. The sense that anything can happen and anyone could possibly win their division and go all the way to become World Series Champions crackles the air with excitement.

I've just finished one of my annual rituals: each year, during the final week of Spring Training, I re-read Jim Bouton's classic book, Ball Four. Written in 1970, Bouton's book chronicled his life during the 1969 season. What made the book a classic was not only Bouton's surprisingly engaging and conversational writing style, but the fact that Ball Four was the first book to break the code that hung in every baseball locker room: "What you see hear, what you say here, when you leave here let it stay here." Whereas most sports books before this painted the players as heroes, with a flair for the dramatic homerun or near-impossible game-saving catch, Bouton revealed the human beings behind the heroes in all their glory and shame. These weren't role models in the traditional glorified sense. They were ballplayers who spit, swore, got drunk, smoked dope, took amphetamines and chased women. The curtain was pulled back to reveal a bunch of regular joes, not all of whom were the most likeable. You know - like in real life.

CoverImage via Wikipedia

The book holds up today, 40 years later. The names may have changed, the substances of choice to abuse may be different, but you get the sense the clubhouse of 2009 probably isn't all that different from the clubhouse of 1969 in personality or in vulgarity. And that's what makes the book so wonderful. It's timeless, it's funny, it's real. And I have long contended that to call it a "sports book" is to do it a great injustice. It's a book about a guy learning to enjoy what he does within his own limitations and at the hands of the limitations of others. Baseball just happens to be the vehicle to tell the story.

If you've never read it, please do. Were I in charge of such things, I would make it required reading for everyone in the country, despite it's rough language and frank approach. It really is a classic.

As I write this, the 2009 Opening Day game is about seven hours away, and I'm counting down the hours and minutes! For the first time in 28 years the Phillies are entering the season as defending champions, and I would love to see them repeat. I think they have a good chance to. In fact, let me close by giving you my picks for the 2009 season - check back with me in October and see how I did:

AL East - Boston Red Sox
AL Central - Cleveland Indians
AL West - Texas Rangers
AL Wild Card - Minnesota Twins

NL East - Philadelphia Phillies
NL Central - St. Louis Cardinals
NL West - Los Angeles Dodgers
NL Wild Card - Chicago Cubs

I'm predicting a Phils/Bosox Series with the Phillies repeating as champs. OK, it's a combination of prediction and wishful thinking, but it's what I'm going with!

How about you? Who are your picks?

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