VERO BEACH, Fla. – Seventeen days in Arizona, 11 in Florida, and still no sign of Barry.
Alex Cora was taking ground balls at shortstop. Coach Brad Mills, his back pockets stuffed with replacement balls, was swinging a red fungo bat.
That was it.
Mills hitting hard, low two-hoppers into the hole. Cora gliding, backhanding, releasing a throw to first base.
Pre-game music th-th-th-thumped, fans along the fences pleaded for Jason Varitek to look over, clubbies hauled bats and helmets and other gear into the dugouts in shopping cars with defiant wheels. Batting practice was the headliner, of course, a middle-aged coach dutifully using up the last of his labrum so a going-nowhere middle infielder could maybe today figure a way to stay inside the ball and go the other way.
But it was Cora and Mills, their artistry, two men elegantly and unceremoniously doing their jobs, who can carry the game.
A couple days before, on my way gradually to the east coast of Florida, I'd trailed a red SUV for several miles, it plodding a few clicks short of the 65 mph limit. A gray and white cat paced the top of the back seat, from one window to the other. After a few minutes of this restlessness, the cat poked its head through the passenger window. The hard, warm breeze pressed the cat's ears to its head. How odd, I thought.
And then it jumped. Yes it did.
(This is the part in the retelling where Deacon Jones, the sage and long-time scout, leaps to his feet and screams, "No, no, no!" startling an entire lunch room at McKechnie Field in Bradenton.)
Well, I'll say, I'd never seen a cat with such wicked top spin. Its first-hop trajectory carried Ol' Fluffy from the pavement past my gray Kia about even with the side-view-mirror, me horrified, cat probably equally so. I swear we made eye contact as it whipped past, a plume of gray and white fur close behind. It landed again about 20 yards back, directly on the dotted line separating the fast and slow lanes, becoming then a routine grounder.
Here's the thing (and here's the connection): Ol' Fluffy not only stood up, but shook itself, juked a Jeep Cherokee, and dashed – unsteadily – to the shoulder, where it disappeared under the guard rail.
(The woman driving the SUV did not so much as tap her brakes, leading, I'm sure, to some great confusion when she got to where she was going.)
Sitting in a lawn chair just off the Mets' dugout, engrossed in Mills' perfectly guided two-hoppers and Cora's precision – two steps, backhand, right-foot plant, snap throw across the diamond – it occurred to me the game still lives in these narrow slices of standards. No matter how often baseball hits the pavement, flung to the winds of greed and scandal, it does endure, usually in spite of itself.
The game is in a single brilliant curveball from 19-year-old Clayton Kershaw to Sean Casey, and then in Kershaw's grounded reaction to it: "That's just one curveball. I'm probably going to have to throw one or two more to make it."
It's in the story of Nyjer Morgan, who as a teenager in San Jose went off to play junior hockey in Canada, circled back on high school with a GED ("Good enough diploma," he says), and now, coming up on his 28th birthday, is trying like hell to become a regular in the Pittsburgh Pirates' outfield. Speaking as a young black man playing hockey in Canada, he said, "Went up, banged around a little bit, dropped the mitts." He's still fighting, but with an eager smile and a wonderful perspective.
It's in Ron Gardenhire, steeling himself against the departures of Johan Santana and Torii Hunter, endeavoring to soften some of the showier edges of Carlos Gomez, joking there might have been a time when, he, too, could have run with Jose Reyes: "I know one thing, he never had to run from the dogs I did growing up; paper route in Oklahoma."
It's on a shady bench in Dodgertown, where long-time Dodgers employee Billy DeLury sets for a spell and finds the perspective no one else can. He first set foot on the campus 57 years ago and might never return, and he feels the loss in the men who once clattered across the sidewalks here. In Jackie, and Newk, and Oisk, and Pods, and Duke, and Sandy, and Don. "Those guys," he said, "they made it special."
It's in the rationale of Manny Acta, who looked down a pitching-starved roster and said, "Do you want to have five Walter Johnsons here? Of course, but I'm satisfied with what I have."
So, Brad Mills hit his expert fungoes and Alex Cora plied his expert glove and Ol' Fluffy made it to the other side, none of which will have much impact on the season, all of which looked like baseball to me.