Commentary

Happy Pitchers And Catchers Day

clearwater 023aCLEARWATER —

An eternal blanket of blue tents the fields at the Carpenter Complex. As virgin palm trees sway lightly in line, balls pop into leather gloves. The men are wiry but their limbs are rough, jerking deliberately from point to point. Nothing is fluid yet. Their bodies are still thawing.

But there are smiles. Plenty of smiles.

In years past reporters chronicled the duty and honor of the skilled veterans, how one hurler would arrive before sunrise, climb stairs and engineer his polished body into game shape before even throwing one pitch. Then, in those nascent days of live tweeting, the photos would appear: Roy Halladay is scaling the stairs already. A two-hit shutout in July isn’t far away at all.

Jimmy Rollins would hold court at his plastic chair, drawing the tape recorders closer with his easy eyes and soft fingers. “We’re the team to beat.” And the quotes were pressed with ink and sent to the world. What swagger this man had. What gall one can find with just one sun-kissed day under orange trees, with the wind smelling of Coppertone and fried grouper.

In those days the spring was no more than a dainty amuse bouche. You couldn’t truly understand our Phillies in those 40 days lingering under the blinding Florida sun, when squads are split and even the most obscure talent could catch fire and hit .450. We focused on the details: Was Cliff Lee settling into a groove? Was Domonic Brown showing defensive improvement? Was Chase Utley keeping himself from the trainer’s table? We reveled in these miniscule questions while ignoring the inevitable fall we would soon experience. We were the most blind.

In some ways Clearwater lost her way. There was freedom in discovering the sandcastle bars lined against the waves of the Gulf of Mexico, and freedom in parking yourself outside for a beer, stealing a glance at a woman so very far from your league. There was freedom in waking inside the hotel bedroom, swigging the last of your Corona, and venturing into the winding line for Lenny’s. You wore the hat proudly, smiled wide and joined every conversation imaginable. “I like Mayberry … he can be the total package.” “Happ is a stud; he’s like Hamels all over again.” “If Howard just keeps hitting 40 homers a year for the next six or seven years … Hall of Fame …”

You’d walk inside like a king, sit at your booth and scarf down your eggs. You’d glance around and see your subjects, decked in red and white, sunglasses up and bodies newly bronzed. This was, in fact, a heaven.

That freedom washed away with those miniscule questions. We immersed ourselves in samples and technique. We charted every limb movement, debated every plate appearance, scoffed at every disastrous route taken to catch a can of corn. Why couldn’t they all climb the stairs at 6 a.m.? Why couldn’t they all say what we want to hear, and watch that borderline strike sail past the plate, and position themselves perfectly for that grounder in the hole?

Soon these wiry lads tossing the ball around became behemoths worthy of instant scorn. They made more money in one year than we would ever see in a lifetime, so they deserved this. And they deserved our charts and graphs, our flash illustrations and live tweets of their every spring appearance. They put themselves here, and we saved that paycheck and forwarded our tax returns for this opportunity. They’d better show us something.

Now there are smiles.

There are 65 of them this year in the main clubhouse at the Carpenter Complex, and 47 of them weren’t there last year. Many of those newcomers are fresh and young, barely in their 20s, eyes wide as they stretch and take their hacks. Soon they’ll see David Price, Justin Verlander, Marcus Stroman and Masahiro Tanaka, and David Ortiz, Miguel Cabrera, Jose Bautista and Alex Rodriguez. This will be new. They will lick their lips and focus hard. They’ll want nothing more than to work as hard as possible, to achieve as much as possible, and to show to everyone they’re worthy of their place in baseball.

Clearwater isn’t just a city on the Gulf of Mexico. It’s not just the home of spring training baseball for the Philadelphia Phillies, and part of a network of Floridian locations that brings thousands of northerners into the state for 40 days each year.

Clearwater is, in fact, what makes our nostalgic hearts flutter twice as fast. It’s the winter liberation of the soul as it emerges from the concourse and onto the warm grass in the outfield. It’s the longest noon and the deepest night, a body swaying freely underneath a silver moon and twinkling Tropic of Cancer stars.

It’s the feeling of youth, when anything is possible and nothing is worry. Our Phillies may bludgeon us in the chill of an April evening, and drag us through the sweltering heat of an August afternoon, but in February and March, when we impatiently crawl in scarves and down jackets, our Phillies are a flamenco performance in a perfect blue morning. And this year’s Phillies are taking their first steps, balancing themselves on the grass, laughing and smirking and smiling. Now there are smiles. Plenty of smiles.

This is the year Clearwater returns home. She is new again and fresh of smell and sight, sound and taste. The wind will bring a spark of cool. The sun will glaze your feet once again as they park quietly on the berm. Your sunglasses will catch the next great player as he dances, at first maybe awkwardly, maybe still wiry and disjointed, but stay with him, because he may be the one who blossoms into the most graceful picture of summer.

***

To coincide with the first weeks of Clearwater baseball, we’ll be unveiling some content over the next two weeks to get you primed for the 2016 season.

Later today, look for our Writers’ Roundtable on a number of topics, from players to watch for 2016 to a predicted won-loss record.

And be sure to read our previous Writers’ Roundtable on the fifth-starter battle.

Early next week we’ll begin Grapefruiting coverage with tips and tricks for maximum spring training enjoyment. If you have tips for Clearwater, please share with us by emailing tsmalcolm@gmail.com.

Next Thursday we’ll unveil the Phillies Power 50, a list of the 50 people in the Phillies organization who are more critical to the team’s long-term success.

And plenty more is to come. Happy Pitchers & Catchers Day!

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