Used to be, NBC spawrtsriter Mike Celizic (1948-2010) would pen an annual paen to spring training and the renewal of nature, valorizing nostalgia and the reinvigorating power of the game. Here’s Mike, for the personal touch:
After Celizic’s death, I tried for several years to convince Craig Calcaterra over at Circling the Bases to re-run some of Celizic’s classic rebirth-of-the-world columns without success. So, this year, I’m going to write a rebirth-of-the-world spring training column of my own and start a new tradition in honor of the man they called “The Hat.” Mind you, these columns will be stamped with my own imprimatur. I knew Mike Celizic and I, sir, am no Mike Celizic.
Along the southern tier of their range, the spring peepers are already gathering in the ponds and goobers dwelling alongside woodland watercourses are beginning to suffer REM deptivation from the all-night orgies the tiny batrachians are staging out there. And you know what that means, right?
Right. The peepers have been baseball’s official woodland harbingers of spring training since spring training began. To be fair, tiger salamanders (Ambystoma tigrinum) swarm the ponds just as early but they don’t sing (the males hold their hands over the females’ mouths while mating). They also can’t climb, and the peepers with their sticky little toe pads can sing not only up at you from the pond but down at you from the trees. So, the honor of being nature’s town crier for the rites of spring went to the peepers by default. It means that pitchers and catchers, although not officially due in camp until the end of next week, are showing up early at their respective facilities to “get in shape.” Especially enthusiastic this time of year, aside from the frogs, are the Triple A optioneers and the non roster invitees who want to impress the boss with how hungry they are and how hard they’re gonna work to make an impression. Apropos, spring peepers are so tiny they can ackcherley squat on a minor league salary:
When I was a kid, I used to go hunting for them – the first frogs of the new season! – out in the woods behind my boyhood home. Their scientific name was then Hyla crucifer, the genus a reference to the cries of ancient soldiers seeking Hercules’ drowned pal in Greek and Latin mythology (though also perhaps derived from huli, the old Greek word for timber: hence, the genus of treefrogs). The species name is a nod to the X-shaped markings on their backs, a name as elegant and pretty as the frog itself. The seasonal timing of their emergence, their singing and the cruciform markings invite metaphors of the Passion. I once even wrote a poem called “Hibernation’s End” (with apologies to Arthur C. Clarke) that ended thus:
And the spring peepers who clamber the flower stalks / bearing crosses on their glistening backs / are driven by less derivative spirits than ours / and will soon be singing passion songs of their own.
Ackcherley got it published in a golden age Greenwich Village poetry journal.
Unfortunately, at some time in the dim(witted) past, aflame with the madness of cladistics, power-mad Linnaeans like some latterday Ancient Old Ones issued an executive order (sound familiar?) changing the genus name from the lovely Hyla to Pseudacris (much as Scrooge McLoria changed the team’s uniform from its elegant teal and white baroque to its current gohorrhea discharge rainbow design). Pseudacris. It has all the charm of a vinyl floor tile factory settling pond. Ah well. Perhaps we should be thankful for small favors because the herpetological nomenclatura didn’t bother to change Ambystoma to something even uglier.
Thing is, you couldn’t catch the peepers if you looked for the frogs themselves. You might, at a minimum, listen for their distinctive peep-peep-peep and try to orient yourself, but even that wouldn’t allow you to spot one. They were too tiny. What you had to train your eyes to do was recognize the distinctive shiver of a leaf when the peeper launched from it, and the slightly different shiver of an adjacent leaf where it landed. Then you could screw your beleaguered iris tighter until the little feller came into focus and, if you had the Buddha-graced agility for it, clap your hands together over its sitting place like a clamshell and transfer your prize, leaf and all, to a small jar or milk carton lined with moist sphagnum. Me, my fully furnished peeper terrarium, with a filtered mister and live plants, waited at home. I would keep them all spring and summer, feed them up on pinhead crickets, and release them in the fall.
If this sounds familiar, it’s beacause it’s much the way Scrooge McLoria treated Frenchy last season.
Down here in Macondo, we don’t have spring peepers. We have the huge, ungainly Danton’s toad (Bufo decadantus), whose rumbling croak in our backyard pond can induce REM deprivation ten to fifteen times as quickly as a peeper night. Moreover it only takes a dozen or so Danton’s toads to creat the racket of a thousand peepers roiling the cold waters of a northern woodland sump. It’s that time of year here too. And it’s also the time of year when MLB.com and local spawrts torque hosts are swarming northward to Jupiter, with its big bloodshot all-seeying eye, to beard (a clever pun referring to the Feesh’s idiotic no-facial-hair policy) the early arrivals about their response to the team’s orfseason acquisitions.
Of course the first thing Scrooge McLoria, the Chihuahua and Beeg Mike Heel arranged for the puer aeterni was a seminar session and pep talk about how to respond approvingly to the front orifice’s misadventures in mediocrity. Early attendees were stongly urged to say nice things about the mediocre starters with which the front orifice stocked their rotation:
It’s a little early to listen for the primaveral chorus of “play ball!” but the groan of non-roster invitees doing their stretching exercises can carry as far as I-95 when the wind is from the east.
Regardless, it’s time to get excited. Guys are packing their portmanteaus and leaving rum for Jobu already. There will be spring games before you know it. Who’s not excited?