Technically speaking, Wednesday was not the first day for pitchers and catchers to report to Spring Training. If you follow any beat reporter on Twitter, you've seen plenty of players stretching and rolling around various Grapefruit and Cactus League fields, the uniforms hanging in the lockers, the clubhouse employees schlepping duffel bags everywhere. Wednesday was not the first day for blurry photos of random pitchers tossing from the mound in their undershirts.
But still, it's official.
Wednesday was the undisputed, no question, pitchers-and-catchers-reporting date for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Cleveland Indians, Philadelphia Phillies, St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants. By Sunday, the last three stragglers -- the Minnesota Twins, Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays -- will arrive, and then Spring Training will officially, no doubt, holy cow, be here.
You made it.
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The 2016 regular season ends on Oct. 2, two days earlier than last season. If the postseason schedule is set up roughly like it was last year, the Division Series should be done by Oct. 12, with the League Championship Series around Oct. 21-22, letting the World Series begin around Oct. 25. If it goes seven games -- which has happened only twice in the past 13 years, sad face -- that means it is possible the next day in which there will be no photos of men stretching in the grass, and throwing baseballs to each other, and taking grounders, will be in exactly 260 days. That will be precisely six days before the presidential election on Nov. 8, so if you are having trouble looking at politics these days (for the same reason people have trouble looking at the sun, as in "if you do not stop, you will eventually go blind and/or burst into flames"), you are just about to have yourself an awfully handy distraction. Because it's here.
From now on, it is baseball. Every day brings baseball. It all starts filing in now. The players talking about their offseason regimen. The guys in The Best Shape Of Their Lives. The new managers talking about a "different attitude around here." The reporters tweeting snapshots of players shagging flies from 100 feet away. The hundreds of eager fans, with their hands out with items to be signed, baseballs or pennants, or maybe their baby's bald head.
It's the time to believe anything can happen, because it can. Last spring, the Royals were thought to be a one-year fluke. The Mets were a punchline. Turns out: They faced each other in the World Series. Right now, the only teams in baseball no one thinks have even a tiny chance of making the playoffs are the Phillies, Braves and Reds. And even with them, who knows? Stranger things have happened. Stranger things happen every year. Right now, the sun is shining in Florida and in Arizona, and no matter how cold it is where you are, it is beautiful and perfect and eternal there.
By July, some of you will be so disgusted by your team that the mere mention of their names will cause you to grimace and scowl. By September, you might be ready to move on to football, or just concentrating on your fantasy baseball team's finishing kick. But not right now. Right now, the world spreads out forever before us. This is the year for the Cubs! Or the Rangers! Or the Astros! Or the Nationals! Or the Mets! Or the Dodgers! Any of them!
The first time I went to Spring Training, it blew my mind that I could actually, you know, go. It always felt like a place beyond some invisible velvet rope, a place mere mortals like myself weren't allowed to visit. It's not like that. It's just, uh, Florida or Arizona: cheesy in parts, with a lot of generic stadiums with poor beer options nestled next to strip malls and strip clubs and Applebee's strip steaks, $8.99 on Tuesday night, it's a special promotion. This does not make it any less glorious, because it's not about Florida or Arizona, of course. It's about what goes on there. It's about starting over and believing that this time it's going to be different. It's about having made it through something difficult and seeing that your reward is coming.
There is an earnestness and devotion to the average fan you see at Spring Training that isn't there the rest of the year. During the regular season, you see random fans, people who came in off the street for five bucks, or business people trying to impress clients not paying any attention to what's going on the field. There's nothing wrong with this: Baseball can be consumed any way that you wish to consume it. But there's something special about a Spring Training crowd. They are there solely for the game itself, for the renewal it promises, for the future it heralds. There isn't much else to do at a Spring Training game other than watch the game. Yet fans fill the place, all over the place, taking advantage of cheap prices to watch no-name players participate in a game in which the result does not matter, and often you see bench guys jogging through the outfield in the middle of play. And mostly just looking up at the sky and letting the sun hit their face and knowing that the hard part is past, that, dammit, they've made it. You can go. It's so much easier to go than you think it is.
That's what today is. It's rather banal, the actual nuts and bolts of it, just guys in T-shirts and workout shorts loosening up their arms and hanging up pictures of their kids in their lockers. But it stands for so much more than that. Starting today, there will be baseball happenings, baseball people doing baseball things, every day for the next eight-plus months of our lives. Baseball is perpetual: It succeeds because it's always around you, and you can take as little of it, or as much of it, as you wish. The time where it was unavailable for us has passed. It's back now. We made it.