Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The boys of spring are cold out there

The temperature will reach a high of about 45 degrees on Tuesday in Janesville, with a low of 35. It will rain and it will be windy. Wednesday's an even better day for the tourism bureau - high of 44, chance of snow.

And somewhere in Minnesota on those days, at around 4 in the afternoon, at about the time the temperature heads toward what will eventually be its low mark of the day, a pair of high school baseball teams will meet on a near-frozen diamond in front of a handful of bitter parents and fellow students, all of whom will wonder what in the hell they're doing sitting there watching a baseball game in the middle of, well, winter.

I loved playing high school baseball. I especially loved it when we had blue skies and 75-degree weather, which means I especially loved it about twice a season. Spring high school sports operate in an odd environment in Minnesota. For the most part, schools, coaches, students and parents do not seem to take them as seriously as they do fall and winter sports. The intensity falls, along with the stakes. Our baseball season always seemed to last about as long as the first two rounds of the NBA playoffs. Start the games in April, finish them by mid-May. By the time you get settled in, the season's over. When it's your senior year, your high school athletic career is over and you've barely even noticed.

In cold weather states baseball actually begins in the school gym, the exact date determined by when the basketball teams' seasons end. When people complain about indoor baseball it's usually when talking about MLB and domes. Before it came down, the Metrodome often came up in those discussions. People bemoaned the roof, the turf, the fans in the stands and the (alleged) ones that helped the Twins hit homers or kept foes from hitting them. But that indoor baseball is paradise compared to practicing in a gym. Groundballs off the basketball floor. Hitting inside a giant net. Pop-up drills where fielders run in a straight line as the coach lobs a ball over their head. Then it's time for some more grounders, perhaps a "mini-clinic" on how to come off the bag while turning a double-play. Now we're practicing how to take a lead off of first base. Our coach tries to "hold" us on, an action that's helpful and useful until it becomes ludicrous when he pretends to be a left-handed pitcher, holding his right leg up in an absurd Andy Pettitte impression before fake-firing to an imaginary plate, a motion that would cause anyone watching to say he throws like a girl, and an unathletic one at that.

But the only thing worse than practicing indoors during those early weeks is actually playing outdoors, when the temperature struggled to reach 50 and you could actually discuss wind chill in addition to the opposing pitcher's stuff. Being in the field was the worst, of course. When hitting, we could at least huddle in the dugout together. Standing in the infield you're exposed, helpless, forced to shuffle side to side in an attempt to keep warm, if not feign complete interest in the proceedings. Fortunately our pitchers always possessed decent control, apparently subscribing to the Twins' method of focusing first on throwing strikes (the flaw in that method, as our pitchers often discovered, is that you need a quality defense supporting you). There's no more helpless feeling than watching opposing hitters take four balls and then trot on down to first while their teammate jogs to second. You can plead with your struggling pitcher and disguise it as old-time baseball chatter - "Come on One-Six, throw strikes, big guy, come on now!" - but the parade will continue until the coach mercifully calls in a freezing replacement, who's probably been standing stiff in right field the first three innings. The walks continue.

You gotta throw strikes in cold weather. Make 'em swing, because hitting always seems ten times harder in cold temperatures. The bat feels heavier, your muscles weaker. And if you do make contact the sting sort of makes you wish you'd just had the decency to strike out. There's no sweet spot with an aluminum bat in the cold, only a sore spot. And if you manage to survive the pain and stroke a base hit you now have to run the bases, instead of retreating to the pseudo shelter offered by the aging dugout.

High school games are seven innings but in a Minnesota spring it feels like seventeen. Even better? Double-headers.

Baseball's a great game. Just don't try and tell that to Minnesota high school players today and tomorrow.

No comments: