I called in sick to work for the first time in months on Friday. I’d been fighting some seasonal nonsense all week, and finally, I just needed a day to stay in, keeping my path no more ambitious than the bed to the couch and back.
In the middle of the day, there was a Red Sox Spring Training game on TV. I watched a couple of innings before losing interest. I was so out of it and so far from having baseball on the brain that I couldn’t focus on who was playing and why.
Thanks to a historic and depressing winter, this has been a month where all my old baseball rituals have flown out the door.
March has been thrown all out of whack in the Boston area thanks to freezing temperatures threatening to creep into April and the slogging weather exhaustion that affects everything. My girlfriend and I haven’t gone out to eat as much, or even on walks around the city, as much as would be typical for now. It has snowed every weekend for the past 10 weeks, a stretch that dates back to the first January blizzard. It’s always cold here, of course, but this has long gone past absurdity, and among the casualties has been any kind of usual baseball excitement.
The most basic of exercises would simply be watching Spring Training games on TV. Rather than serving as some kind of escape, it’s just a drag, with no enthusiasm coming in to the experience. Despite the calendar, it’s still winter, we still have plastic up on the windows and I don’t feel like watching sun-baked fans under palm trees casually enjoy Clay Buchholz going through his reps. I haven’t spent any kind of time scribbling out possible 25-man rosters in notebooks. I haven’t even watched Bull Durham yet.
So, what’s there to pull me back into baseball mode? If nothing else, there’s David Ortiz.
★ ★ ★
“Yeah, I’m gonna have fun. It’s who I am. I just hit a baseball 500 damn feet. I grew up in the gutter and now I’m out here in front of the world living my dream and you all want me to feel sad? I can’t do it. I’m here to bring joy to this game.”
When David Ortiz’s confessional essay “The Dirt” ran in The Player’s Tribune last week, it provided a flash. In it, he talks about playing the game clean and coming to terms with steroid allegations, where he came from and how he compartmentalizes baseball and family. It’s funny and brutally honest and a window into one of the rare characters in the game, and someone who has become an institution in Boston to the point that merely retiring his number doesn’t feel like enough. There needs to one day be a statue of him along Van Ness Street, maybe capturing him stepping on home plate after another home run, hands and eyes raised to the sky.
So many fans lament the era of transiency that free agency and shifty front offices has bestowed onto the game (and sports, in general) to the point that complaining about it is to just shout at the rain. It’s not changing, and the old reserve system wasn’t as rosy as it seems in the rearview mirror.
But that’s not to say that the game’s institutions can’t be celebrated. He was drafted by Seattle and played his first seasons in Minnesota, but Ortiz is as Boston as any athlete of my lifetime, and he wears it proudly. He is both of the community and beyond it, an international star who has aligned himself with the city. And his approach to his profession and his family — tenaciously protecting his reputation, unapologetic in how he conducts his business — feels like a natural extension of most Boston families. This is a stubborn city. Ortiz is a stubborn man. Those are not digs, but complimentary observations on a large group of people, all fiercely independent and cognizant of their place in the community.
Reading his piece reminded me not just of his overwhelming personality, but that it’s just days until he’s back in the box for the Red Sox. Through all the trades and signings over the winter, the speculation on the starting rotation and the daily rejiggering of the outfield, the Spring Training box scores and the promotions and demotions to and from camp, reading Ortiz in his own voice rammed home the realization that it wouldn’t be long before he’s doing his thing, again, at Fenway. It was the first real bit of enthusiasm I felt for the game in weeks. For a 19th season and 13th in Boston, he’ll be spitting on his gloves, smacking his hands, digging in and then taking his time trotting around the bases after sending another baseball to an early grave.
Yeah, he’s gonna have fun.
★ ★ ★
Fighting off another cold, I walked into Rite Aid this weekend to restock on my most needed supplies: Sudafed, orange juice, boxes of tissues. Walking past the magazine rack, I spotted the 2015 Athlon Baseball issue, another ritualistic purchase. I have years of these in a box in my basement, and they’re a nice, leisurely guide to who wound up where over another long winter.
I grabbed it and threw it in the basket; maybe this could be my ticket to spring. Of course, David Ortiz is on the cover.