by Mike Vaccaro
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — We need this. Need it? Around New York, when it became apparent the chill wasn’t going to abandon our bones one second earlier than required, we’ve been circling this date, pining for it, counting down toward it, from the moments last autumn when baseball expired, abandoning us at the most inopportune time.
That was the most timeless thing Bart Giamatti was talking about all those years ago, after all, when he wrote about how baseball is built to break your heart. That’s the part that still reaches into your soul for a squeeze every year:
“As soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall all alone. … You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive … and then, just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.”
Oh, yeah. We need the Yankees and the Rays at Tropicana Field on Sunday, and we need the Mets and the Braves at Citi Field on Monday. We need all 318 of the games that will follow in a way, this time, that maybe we’ve never needed them before.
Think about all that has transpired since the afternoon of Oct. 2, when Baltimore’s Zach Britton struck out Brett Gardner, ending a 5-2 Orioles win and closing out the Yankees’ schedule (a pitch that would, as it turned out, to the lasting regret of Maryland baseball fans everywhere, be the last pitch Britton threw all year, too).
Think about the echoing sadness that chased you out the door at Citi Field on the night of Oct. 5, when Madison Bumgarner coaxed a line drive off the bat of T.J. Rivera, ending a dominant four-hit, 119-pitch 3-0 victory for the Giants. Recall the abrupt silence that filled the yard maybe a half-hour earlier, when Conor Gillaspie drilled a three-run homer that sealed the Mets’ fate and slaughtered their season.
If you are a New York sports fan, think about all the losses you have witnessed in the weeks since then, blowout losses and heartbreaking losses, losses where your team didn’t show up and losses where you wish you hadn’t shown up.
The Nets and the Knicks have fallen in bunches, in bulk, the Jets losing so often you grew numb to it, the Giants winning just enough to keep your interest piqued, then pulling a no-show in Green Bay in the playoffs. If you are a hockey fan in New Jersey or Brooklyn, it has been a forgettable slog, and even as well as the Rangers have played, it sometimes feels like the Yankees have won at the Stadium more recently than Broadway Blue has won at the Garden.
Just when we needed it most, baseball stopped and gave us … all of that, instead. But it wasn’t just sports that soured our mood in the interim. There was an election (you may have heard), and no matter what side of the great abyss your views may fall, it has been a long, hard, jagged road from Election Day to here, and the pavers are nowhere in sight just yet.
The weather seemed especially foul this year, but then, if we’re being honest with ourselves, the weather seems especially foul every year when summer follows baseball out the door. It’s what makes the last day of the season such a mournful affair, after all, because we know what’s coming behind it. But if there’s one good thing about an endless string of 23-degree mornings, it’s this:
You appreciate what’s coming behind that, too.
And so this week, if you indulge yourself a little, you see a day or two where the temperature might actually reach 65 in Central Park. It should be right around 80 when the Yankees take on the Rays on Sunday (although that technically may be cheating, since the game will be in Florida and it will be contested indoors in the air conditioning).
No matter. As sad as the end of that old Giamatti essay was, after all, it is surpassed by the hope of the start:
“The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings …”
We need to begin again. We need this summer. We need this season. We need baseball, back again at 1 o’clock Sunday. More than that: We’ve earned it, this year more than any before.