There’s a Peanuts comic strip particularly relevant this time of year, one in which a despondent Charlie Brown solemnly reflects on the passing of summer, and more specifically, the passing of baseball season.
I find myself in great company among fellow fans when I say “that’s me.” That’s how I feel at the end of each season. It’s the saddest time of the year. The beauty of Autumn is dying a cold, gray death and there’s no more baseball to keep you company each night. It’s dreary, as Charlie Brown bemoans, his head resting against the cold deserted pitcher’s mound, weeds growing up around him. It’s depressing.
Baseball fans discovered seasonal affective disorder before anyone else.
(My friend Andrea disagrees. She’s a Red Sox fan of the diehard variety, the common pre-bandwagon genus. This could very well be a long cold winter and she wouldn’t mind. Tim Thomas and Tom Brady are plenty adequate to cool her ire during these gray-skied months without any more discussion of beer in the dugout and fried chicken and videogames in the clubhouse. That’s understandable.)
But as for the baseball players themselves, these are glorious days!
The majority are in sun-drenched locales, enjoying regular workouts amid much-needed time with family and friends. The season provides a great living wage and the proper accelerants to fuel anyone’s competitive fire, but the offseason means life as a normal person without excess traveling and media over-attention and hyper-coverage.
During the last few games of a season for a non-playoff bound team, the clubhouse resembles that of a high school in the final days before summer break. The final grades have long since been locked in, with only a select few caring about solidifying their final stats. Vacation plans have already been made, plane tickets have already been purchased. Extra innings are a bane – why stay any longer than necessary? If a team finishes on the road, there are players who do not return home with their teammates. Their travel arrangements get them away from baseball as soon as it’s earthly possible.
But it’s true that not everyone leaves baseball behind at the end of the season. In the minors, for instance, the proving grounds of the Arizona Fall League await the cream of the crop for each franchise’s top prospects. For the next layer of talented farmhands, they are sent to their own organization’s instructional league, headquartered usually in the Major League team’s spring training facility.
The passing out of instructional league invitations among a minor league team is alternately fascinating and disheartening to watch. Many of the players who receive the invites are irked or outright angered. Their energy is utterly sapped by the long season and they’d prefer to return home to recharge their batteries. Instead, they have to attend what their imaginations depict as a boot camp of drills and exercises, watched by a coterie of demanding coaches and instructors. The players who don’t receive their invitations are equally upset, as if the Major League team has outright told them that their futures are not regarded highly. Many an ego is deflated by the lack of an instructional invite.
For those who want their baseball futures in their own hands, not their parent clubs, a multitude of players take part in winter ball, participating in the Australian Baseball League or the Caribbean Leagues. The lesser-known ABL, comprising the Adelaide Bite, Brisbane Bandits, Canberra Cavalry, Melbourne Aces, Perth Heat and Sydney Blue Sox, begins play in the opening days of November. It is rare that the average baseball fan knows a member in the ABL.
This cannot be said about the hotly-contested play in the Caribbean, featuring leagues based in Mexico, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Each league champion advances onward to battle in the Caribbean Series, enormous attention and high stakes riding on each game. With this in mind, league champions have been known to acquire the star players from other teams in their league in order to give themselves a better chance of winning the championship.
The international version of a depressed Charlie Brown leans against the pitcher’s mound in February, the conclusion of winter ball for both the ABL and the Caribbean Leagues, only a few weeks away from the start of Major League spring training.
It is about this time, getting near the start of March, that cold-weather newspaper columnists unpack their nostalgically-tinged memories and poetic metaphors, comparing the dawn of a new baseball season with rebirth, spring, youth, growth and optimism. It is also about this time that the non-winter-ballers rouse themselves from their offseason work and sleeping patterns and begin making plans for their jersey-wearing days to begin again.
For so many ballplayers, the start of next season comes too quickly. They could use another month of rest; another month away from the spotlight.
But for the rest of us, who aren’t ballplayers – or Red Sox fans – next season cannot come quickly enough. The pitcher’s mound is a cold place at the start of November, and winter has not even begun yet.