The Cruelest Months (Mar. 11, 1998)

O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool'd a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim

—Keats, "Ode To A Nightingale"

Spring is in the air, and like a toe-tapping number from Englebert Humperdink the effect of the fledgling sun and crocus balm is to coax us mortals into passionate, beautiful malevolence. We spend long minutes drowsing over our keyboards and ledger sheets, lost in intoxicating dreams of the temperate climes to come, a fast-approaching freight train overflowing with coconuts, parasols, squirt guns and Baltic bathing trousers of spandex and twine. We close our optimistic eyes to see ourselves sunbathing outside square cement bunkers by the mythic lake, while overhead very real CAMP helicopters leaking napalm and bad karma whoosh-whoosh towards renegade Comptche. In the backyard's organic garden, between the monster stalks of cherry tomatoes and cross-breed marijuana, watermelons overripen in the sub-tropical heat. If you squint just so you see not sweet fruity seed but the bloated corpses of a mule train starring tragically in an existential Saharan nightmare as Gary Cooper comes galloping from Beau Geste to the rescue. For just as Hope Springs Eternal, also know that Spring Hopes Eternal. Thus do we arrive at Spring as Metaphor, Spring as Gurgling Brook of Byronic Love, Spring as Dandruff Shampoo Commercial Featuring Olympic Heroine In Locks Of Beaten Gold And Negro Back-Up Singers Doo-Wopping Divine. Besides mosquitoes, outbreaks of dry-humping at drive-in theaters, and the acrid smoke of weber barbecues, the lengthening light brings with it a new rash of advertisements. The body nazi battalions exhort us to firm up for those languorous afternoons spent in two-piece bikinis at Newport Beach and the Boardwalk soaking up cancer and flexing our surgically enhanced buns. In order to steal another $45,000 for a four-wheeled topless death trap, the convertible merchants shout sugary lies about the zen perfection of Japanese-German engineering, and how we owe it to our inner child to drink from the soda fountain of life and make single mothers pushing strollers of yelping triplets eat our expensive exhaust.

But more venomous than the psycho-sexual havoc of Madison Avenue's prepackaged spring time, more hurtful than aerobics instructors named Molly glowing in tan-o-rama splendor, is of course, Spring Training. O the romance of it! O the tender incense of cut grass! O the noble brick ochre of the base paths! O the horseplay, the pitchers covering first base, the crotch grabs, the double rotations and hard-charging third baggers dribbling tobacco juice down their sturdy chins! O the over-hyped cactus-league-Arizona-iron-lung-nightmare-it's-a-new-year-the-kid's-got-some-pop -million-dollar-free-agent-$10-hot-dog wonder of it all!

Now, with pro sports stretching months beyond their natural seasons, with television networks and tennis shoe conglomerates calling the shots, our calendar is attuned not to celestial cycles but to the promotional opportunities of the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Finals, Stanley Cup, March Madness, Kentucky Derby, Indy 500, the Skins Games, Wimbledon, Monica Lewinsky's Trip To The Salad Bar, etc. Sports, as manifested by corporate America, rule. As our national past-time (besides drunk driving and bombing peasant villagers), baseball has a special place in our hearts, minds and walletbooks, and I am no different. Though I despise the game's many bruises, the Bon Jovi blared between innings, the pompous overpaid athletes, the pompous overpaid owners, the pompous overpaid announcers (Bill King and Lon Simmons excepted), the pompous drunken louts who force the few normal people actually attending games to seriously consider the benefits of fascism and population control, despite all these hairy warts on the game's fair cheek, there is real beauty in a diving catch, a left-hander painting the black with a 95-mile-an-hour fastball, a perfectly executed hit-and-run, drag bunt, suicide squeeze, relay throw to the plate. We are caught in Spring Training's pine tar web because we understand that life is hard, marriage doesn't work, romantic love is a curse, our jobs are pointless, the fish are dying, the car won't start, the birds can't sing because their gullets are stuffed with rubberbands, our best friends hate us and wish to see us fail, Santa Claus is a pedophile specializing in internet porn, the Easter Bunny's a virus-bearing rodent, and what can be done? We're desperate for something to love that will suffer our sloppy kisses, drunken outbursts and murderous affection (especially when we shell out $15 for a bleacher seat). So we get up in the morning and scan the front pages for hilarious disasters and drive to work looking for old ladies to cut off in traffic and eat doughnuts and gobble up on dirty jokes because basically we sense how comic and maudlin and immature our self-pitying really is. Because compared to the Zapatistas and Albanians and Kurds and Chicago Cubs fans we're sitting pretty, thank you very much.

So let's enjoy it. Let's turn on the ball game and remember how young we once were and what joy it was to run around those base paths and to walk across the Anton Stadium parking lot and your cleats going clackety-clack just like real ballplayers. So you can cry about your dead-end job and how mommy doesn't love you, and you can complain that the Oscars are a joke and redwoods are all gone, but that only gets you so far. There comes a time when it's important to get drunk on whatever elixir you please, Schlitz or Shakespeare or John Coltrane or baseball. The grand old game helps sustain the illusion that all is not lost, that the home team will ultimately win, that the songbird is only late, not dead. Now from the radio comes a cheer as Barry Bond slams 33 ounces of hard ash into a weak slider and knocks it into a parking lot. Why not cheer? Let's play some ball. In fact, let's play two. After all, it's spring time. What have you got to lose?

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