February Fantasy: I Can Still Hit!

I was in the middle of the small airport on the Island of St. Martin, getting ready to leave the French-Dutch island after my annual January visit away from the snow and bitter cold of upstate New York. I was debating whether to hit the duty-free liquor store to bring home some nice Caribbean rum.

The man standing near me, a tall, thick-chested fellow, was wearing a Yankees cap. My favorite team. I could not resist asking him if he thought the Bronx Bombers had improved enough this winter to compete. It is risky to assume that simply because someone wears Yankees paraphernalia that they are a baseball or Yankees fan. Once, in London, I walked up to a Yankee-capped man and began to talk baseball, but he spoke no English and knew nothing about the sport. It was just an American hat to him.

But this one hit pay dirt. The man in the airport wondered about the Yanks' pitching, he questioned if A-Rod had anything left in the tank and he doubted their old players could stay healthy. We went through much of the starting roster. And we both bemoaned the fabulous salaries. What, we speculated, would a player such as Felipe Alou, a solid outfielder who played for 16 years until 1974, make today to hit his typical .280 with 19 homers and 78 RBIs. His salary would be off the chart. We laughed.

And then I asked him he ever played, and he had, as a minor leaguer for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Like Alou, he was from the Dominican Republic, but was a catcher who got so bruised up from foul balls that he had to hang up the spikes. He showed me his gnarled hand. Do you miss it, I asked. Of course I knew the answer.

I had played baseball in high school, in college and in a million sandlot teams each summer. I played games six nights a week, and a doubleheader every Sunday. Twice I had tryouts for professional teams. But Yankee Stadium never called me. And yet I miss it every day.

He looked out, wistfully, toward the St. Martin beaches, and his eyes wandered. "I miss it all the time," he said, and he mock grabbed a baseball bat and gripped it like he was standing on deck, taking practice swings. We talked for nearly 30 minutes, which is ridiculous for two grown men who did not know each other. My wife later asked if I knew him. No, but we shared a passion -- like millions of men and women -- for baseball.

And that passion burns as hotly as ever just about now, even though I am about to turn 65 and have not played baseball seriously in 43 years. Ol' Man Winter has battered us here in the Northeast, with zero degree temperatures and multiple snow storms. While spring training is only two weeks away, it is a desperate time for thousands of fanatic baseball fans. The Super Bowl is, thankfully, over. March Madness is around the corner but will hardly quench the baseball thirst. Here, in New York at least, our two basketball teams are horrible, and we do have the Rangers, but, well, hockey is just hockey.

Bottom line: none of those sports do the trick. I can't stand in an airport with just anyone and talk about UNC or Duke or the Knicks. Or exchange daily emails with a fellow fanatic Yankees fan on the West Coast who muddles through the offseason like me, pathetically looking for any morsel of baseball news.

Will the Yankees sign the new 19-year-old Cuban phenomenon? Can the team find a way to void Alex Rodriguez's multi-million dollar bonus? Leafing through the New York Times' Saturday sports section, I spotted a small story on a possible meeting between Yankees officials and Rodriguez that might smooth over their ruffles. I read it more than once, a trashy piece of worthless news -- but gobbled with relish in the winter doldrums.

I would be more embarrassed about my addiction if I was alone. So many in my circle share it. Don't get me wrong. We do meaningful work and have close families. But the passion for baseball comes close to equaling everything else. One friend told me he would cancel his cable television subscription, but then he could not watch the Mets. Another friend, who lives in Los Angeles, told his wife that she could raise their children as Catholics (he is Jewish), as long as he could raise them as Yankees fans (he was not kidding!).

A few weeks ago I visited with the legendary Boys of Summer sportswriter, author and prolific baseball writer, Roger Kahn whose most recent book (his last, he says) came out this fall about the relationship between Jackie Robinson and Dodgers' general manager Branch Rickey. Link. I wanted him to sign the copy I was giving to my son for Christmas. As we sipped scotches, Kahn and I danced back into baseball talk. He regaled me with fresh stories of Robinson. I had edited a book of Kahn's work in 2004, and we spent a lot of time together. I thought I had heard all his stories.

But here he was, at 87 years old, dredging up fresh memories with stories of Jackie and Pee Wee, and the look of joy was on his wizened face. We talked about family and tragedy and life, but it always came back to baseball.

As it does every February when the winter winds chill us to the bone and the lure of crocuses and broken bats and sore arms beckon. When spring training camp finally opens, you know you have made it through another year, that your team really has a chance this season, and that life is still good -- as long as baseball games are close at hand.

And you grip that imaginary baseball bat -- like the guy in the airport -- and the bat feels light and you think you can still hit. Truth is, you were never that good a hitter. You could not hit the high fastball when you were 20 and, like Alex Rodriguez at 40, you cannot hit it now. But spring fantasies are a wonderful thing. You and Rodriguez can dream you can still hit. He will have a chance to find out. I just have my February fantasies. So, meet me in the airport, we can discuss it and swing our imaginary bats.