Each year in mid-February, I get a year older. This year is no different; I turn 30. Clearly, I am too old to make it into any of the prospect books; John Sickels wouldn't take the time to grade me.
And while the excitement over the passing of a year, with attendant privileges and rights, has become the realization of certain doors closing behind me, the birthday is still a happy occasion.
That's because each year, baseball gives me a present. On or around my birthday, pitchers and catchers report.
Those words don't sound like they are filled with romance, but they are. Pitchers and catchers report. Growing up, it meant that after a long winter absent any baseball, the evening news would have a few video clips of my favorite Mets throwing and catching a baseball.
The circumstances of media have changed, obviously. Now, thanks to SNY, I have already seen Johan Santana throw a changeup and Jose Reyes run on a track. The MLB Network's coverage of the Carribean Series meant I got to overanalyze dozens of Fernando Martinez at-bats.
But still, there will be certain attendant pleasures in pitchers and catchers reporting that even these bits of baseball couldn't provide. If you're like me, you have been going over the roster time and time again. Yet seeing those players actually performing the basic tasks of the game is simply a different level of visceral pleasure.
It is also key, I think, in allowing fans and media alike to move past the 2009 season. Simply put, the mere presence of players like John Maine, Oliver Perez, Jon Niese, Fernando Martinez, not to mention Jose Reyes and Johan Santana on the field together allows for a fundamentally different ethos for an observer.
After all, looking at the roster and imagining what might be was not just the refuge of a fan in winter -- it was what Mets fans did, staring longingly at the disabled list, for most of 2009.
Soon enough, the first intrasquad games begin, and by early March, the organ version of Meet the Mets will greet us out of our radios set to WFAN. I remember a static-filled version of the song, listening to the Mets in South Jersey, and wondering if this would be the year for Darren Reed to finally reach his Major League promise. That first televised game on WOR with the people in the Florida sunlight -- all far luckier than I since they were experiencing live baseball -- was the promise of what came next.
And that is the real present: The reminder that, no matter how the Mets finish in the standings, 2010 promises baseball. 162 games, 1,458 innings (not including extra innings) of baseball.
For me, my first summer of baseball came at age six, in 1986. Obviously, that year set the standard for the maximum of what could be, with each subsequent season failing to live up to that initial year. 1993, when the Mets lost 103 games, was particularly resonant for this lesson.
Still, 1986 prepared me for two tracks of thought on the subject of a baseball season. One is that even if a season lasts until Game 7 of the World Series, late in October, it isn't nearly enough baseball to make one tired of the game. Indeed, paradoxically, a season that long makes you miss baseball during the offseason most of all.
The other realization comes from each subsequent year, seasons that haven't ended with a glove thrown impossibly high in the air, that even without a championship, baseball provides no shortage of pleasure. A baseball season means many things other than October baseball. It has to, if one is to be a Mets fan.
Soon enough, the air will get warm enough here too, the snow will melt, and the baseball gloves will come out. I will be 30, but I am still fortunate enough, when the weather permits, to play catch with my father. My ridiculously tolerant wife will also play catch with me, though she has generously decided to provide me with a daughter, so I can take her onto the lawn and continue this tradition through another generation.
She is due April 1, just about the same day as Opening Day, and I have already begun scouting the various tiny baseball gloves she can choose to wear. I suppose her annual birthday present from baseball will be a bit different than mine; for her, a birthday party can actually take place at a baseball game, a possibility closed off to me due to chronology.
And though the world is a difficult place, and most of our years more closely approximate the 1993 Mets than they do the 1986 Mets, the promise of fatherhood, like a baseball season, is that it will be filled with small victories along the way.
Cynics may laugh, but my enthusiasm for this baseball season, and the one when my little girl first fits her hand into the smallest Rawlings baseball glove, knows no bounds.