Winter Ball

Major-league teams have reported to begin the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues

Major-league teams have reported to begin the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues’ preseason games.

The baseball most North America followers and fans in the Far East are familiar with is in every way a non-winter sport. Not as “evolved” (for lack of a better word) as cricket, which is avidly followed year-round and on the highest levels, whether it be on the Indian subcontinent, the UK, the Caribbean, or Australia, winter ball concentrates in such non-English-language “remote places” as Venezuela, Panama, Nicaragua, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Curacao, Mexico, Puerto Rico.

You get the big picture.

(Prior to the Missile Crisis, Cuba was very much in this “North American mix.” Everybody knows Yasiel Puig. How many would remember Omar Linares or Gérman Mesa?)

North American cable providers now offer baseball for wintery shut-ins. This audience is fit though few, and largely Hispanic. It’s a good start in the right direction. Baseball, like cricket, is in the mood of/for the sun.

To the little picture….

Thro this harsh 2013-14 winter, I (Evander) think back on another form of winter ball. This old-style winter, straight out of New York City from the cold-war, satiric* 1960s and 1970s, brings to mind the junior-high ritual of gymnasium softball.

There are memories of ducking snowballs once outside; of my mother packing lunch along with my well-oiled baseball glove (I think the bats were supplied by the Board of Education as such would have been considered weapons in my tough school) for the after-school softball “league” of classes—7-247: seventh grade, room number 247—versus 7-252 for example, and half-a-dozen others.

Faced with hills of February snowfalls, I’d picture things looking exactly this way and worse in icy-American snow-belt kingdoms that touched my imagination: Sault Ste. Marie, Oswego, Montreal (as part of America—North America; a city, as well, my parents and I visited over several summers during this Expo 67 era).

(Today, I am drawn to photographs by Roman Vishniac: images of wintry-shtetl life in imperial Russia. These photos, of different places, might have been of my grandfather and father’s sisters—studious shopkeepers, rabbis, the peasant downtrodden—pale ghosts forever frozen in Vilnius, Lithuania, before they retreated. Baseball, softball were surely not in their vocabulary.)

To oversimplify, softball is something of a watered-down version of hardball. The sphere is grapefruit-sized larger and less tightly wound. The pitcher tosses underhand and, in this form, not with too much speed. The bases are closer together as is the pitcher’s rubber from home plate. The fun is to put bat on ball, to put the ball in play, and to see what develops instead of piling up the Ks.

The rules of this form of winter ball, amid the pale-fading light of the urban gym, were likewise unusual. A ball striking the ceiling was an automatic out. Any ball hit off a wall or interior-grated window, and caught on the fly, was an out. There was no sliding into bases, no stealing them. I believe a gym teacher functioned as catcher, for both sides, and “tripled” as umpire. When a ball was smacked, usually a hard grounder or line drive, the bat had to be placed on a tumblers’ mat on the first-base side. If the bat struck the polished gym floor, that too was recorded as an out.

The easiest position was pitcher, and in my seventh-grade class that was reserved for undersized me. But my most vivid memory is unexpectedly putting a charge into one, pulling the ball on a rising flight toward the wall—and thus an easy-rebound out if the third-baseman or shortstop were playing his position correctly. (The rebound would have gone over the left-fielder’s head; that’s how true the ball was hit, and thus how far it would ricochet.) Unexpectedly, however, the ball struck high off one of the rappelling-ropes and died, dropping straight down. I had myself a double!

In Right off the Bat, we call such sense-memory of almost spectral perfection, outside the boundaries of time, a kairos moment.

*Mythy-minded Northrop Frye subdivides and structures the four primary modes or genres of literature into the turning cycle of seasons: spring/comedy, summer/romance, fall/tragedy; winter being the season of satire-irony.

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About rightoffthebatbook

Co-author of the book, "Right Off the Bat: Baseball, Cricket, Literature, and Life"
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