By Neal Karlen
For good or ill, it's baseball season again. Baseball makes me think of long, languid evenings spent under a clear night sky. I think of T-shirts and shorts, freshly shorn grass, hot dogs and cold beer. And I think of friendship.
In this part of the country, nights don't get languid until July. I have never wanted to wait until the end of winter to see big league baseball. And so, ever since college, a few close friends and I made a tradition of heading south in the spring for an early taste of the best of summer. For me, spring training was also the best of baseball, shared with the best of old comrades.
Back in the 1980s, spring training fans were a mismatched amalgam of baseball cranks, footloose hipsters and intellectuals on sabbatical. The carnival atmosphere was a major part of the appeal. During a weeklong visit to Arizona or Florida, fans could count on a close encounter with one celebrated baseball personality or another passing through the Little League-sized surroundings.
But by the 1990s, spring training had hit the big time. The bandbox stadiums were largely replaced by modern and colorless baseball facilities designed to insulate players from the influx of well-scrubbed fans who swarmed there each March.
And we changed, too. Old friends became busy with family and life. Our spring training tradition fell away.
But then, just a couple of years ago, a friend I hadn't seen in 25 years invited me to join him and several men I didn't know on their annual baseball pilgrimage. So a new tradition started. And where I once only attended spring training with old friends, the preseason games are now where I gather with men I barely know to share — and not share — the meaning of our lives.
My scorecards indicate I saw five games in three days last month, featuring 10 different teams scoring 47 runs. Yet a few days later, I remembered almost nothing about the games. What I recall instead is being in the company of more than 20 men, whom I only see once a year. The rules are simple: no golf, no shaving and a $5 fine for any whining ... about anything.
What hit me years before I hooked up with this group is how hard it seemed for me and other men I knew to make new friends as adults. Virtually all my male friends were made by the time I was 25. Yet at spring training, midlife male friends are made, and I think that's the magic of the trip. It's a brave new world where men allow themselves to talk about real things — or nothing at all, except the prospects of Joe Mauer's kneecaps holding up through May. Conversation can be as superficial or as deep as we desire, without recrimination or judgment.
In spring training, anything seems possible. Yet when the home season actually started this week, I passed on the chance to attend opening day with a few pals I've known for decades. My baseball season has already been played, magically, in the company of friends.