Tomorrow is Valentine's Day, and one of the few true loves of my life will return when Chicago Cubs pitchers and catchers report to Mesa, Ariz., for spring training.
Man, I feel a littler warmer just typing that.
Sure, it'll be another nine days before spring training "games" begin — "games" being in quotations because the only things that make spring training remotely watchable is if: 1) you happen to be at the game soaking in the sunshine; or 2) you personally know someone competing for a roster spot, such as, say, a certain outfield prospect in the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim system who may have graduated from Ottawa High School; or 3) a long, cold winter has left you desperate to see finely-manicured green grass and hear the sound of a leather ball struck by a wooden bat — and another 34 days on top of that before the games actually count.
If I were to spend my time with you this week writing about how the return of baseball perfectly captures the hope that is spring and the promise of summer, I would be about the 19,750,138th person to do so. I'd also never do it as well as Angelo Bartlett Giamatti, briefly the commissioner of Major League Baseball in the late 1980s, who penned my favorite paragraph every written about the game:
“It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall all alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.”
As for me, spring training games are better taken in as beautiful background noise than actually watched.
• The scattered conversations of a crowd instantaneously swallowed by crazed cheering as I uncover and clean up the grill and smoker and the firepit from their long winter's nap;
• The sounds of a sudden 6-4-3 double play (bat on ball, ball hits glove once followed by two more quick pops and either a roar or a groan) while I rake out the flowerbeds;
• The vendors yelling "Beer here!" and "Get yer hot dogs!" as I walk down to neighborhood grocery or gas station for my own lunch or adult beverages;
• The unmistakable smack of a no-doubt-about-it home run as I fold my daughter's still-warm laundry fresh out of the dryer;
• The silky-smooth voice of Pat Hughes talking baseball as I doze off for an afternoon nap.
This spring we Cubs fans might have to pay a little attention to the actual spring baseball, though.
Even with the addition of Yu Darvish thanks to a slightly-underpriced but also slightly-overlong contract that I fear four or five years from now is going to prevent the Cubs from re-signing a superstar such as Addison Russell or — perish the thought — Willson Contreras in his prime in favor of a no-longer effective pitcher in his mid-30s, there is still a lot of uncertainty around this year's Cubs team that may or may not be hashed out in Arizona over the next month and a half.
Kyle Schwarber looks great, sure, but will better physical fitness help him be anything more than a .211-hitting, feast-or-famine player who goes from Point A to Point B in the field by aimlessly wandering through Points C, D, E, F and usually G and H first?
With a bullpen full of plus arms but no proven end-of-game guy, who will develop into the team's closer, or will it be truly closer by committee?
Will the leadoff man come the end of March be some combination of Ben Zobrist, Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. or will one of them emerge as the guy at the No. 1 spot ... or be replaced by someone from outside (John Jay is still out there in free agency, you know)?
Will Ben Zobrist be back to his steady self and deserve more meaningful playing time or continue his slide and fade into a strictly utility guy/injury insurance policy?
And who, exactly, will head what looks to be an extremely solid starting pitching rotation? Jon Lester again? Kyle Hendricks? My pick to break through and emerge as the staff ace, Jose Quintana? Who knows, maybe even Darvish?
Spring training for me has always been more about the return of baseball than the baseball itself, but this year I think Cubs fans might want to pay just a little more attention.