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Phillies pitchers and catchers report, bringing hellish winter to an end

Making the transition from offseason grump to pre-season fan can be tough.

MLB: Spring Training-New York Yankees at Philadelphia Phillies Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

I’m going to say six weeks.

That’s the window of time in which we are ALL most into baseball, from the start of April until about mid-May. The teams haven’t defined themselves through monotonous losing or quiet domination, and it’s still a thirty-team scrum until those six weeks are up, when projections come through, slumps take form, and MVP candidacy is born.

After that, baseball becomes part of the summer background. The season turns into a series of nightly seven P.M. check-in’s and the team you follow either makes this appointment television or more time to getting invested in a new Netflix series.

This has, for Phillies fans since 2012, become the time in which it is laughable that we had at one point grown so excited for baseball that we stretched the beginning of spring training back two weeks, to when the pitchers and catchers report, so we can have it for just a little bit longer. Or, we all write for and/or consume media from outlets desperate to turn everything from the GM Meetings to “Truck Day” into bloggable content, and pitchers and catchers reporting is another quiet, mundane event—cars pulling into a parking lot—about which we have become genuinely hysterical.

But “hysterical,” will be a nice change of pace. Well, the target of the hysteria, anyway. Baseball feels even newer this year, partially because the components of the sport we’ve been discussing all winter stopped feeling like actual baseball a long time ago. We’ve been debating paperwork and players’ rights and a litany of other issues that, while crucial to the game, don’t quite have the same appeal as feeling the sun on your face.

Today, baseball fans are like squirrelly and deranged apocalypse survivors who just turned on each other in a doomsday bunker, right before the door to the surface creaked open and the sound of people playing catch wafted down to our twitching ears. It’s been a brutal offseason; lots of boredom, frustration, and bitterness, lingering from narratives and rumors real and imagined and poorly conceived. As we all emerge from the bunker, blinking at the sun, our disheveled appearances unnoticed by the ball players taking BP and fielding grounders, it becomes clear why we cling to baseball so tightly: The soothing familiarity of its return brings us back to a version of this planet we recognize, even if it is through images dispatched to us from a sunny place a thousand miles south of here.

We’re learning how to be fans again, not of transactions, contract details, prospect lists, or projected stats, but of the game of baseball, performed in front of us. We no longer have to root for a stranger to file paper work. We can root for Odubel Herrera to flip his bat into the upper deck. And we may have to re-learn how to do that.

Among the Phillies figures headed to spring training, there are a few splendid examples of baseball folks to emulate, if you’re trying to remember how it feels to enjoy this game.

For instance, Dan Plesac.

Plesac is a former big league hurler whose career started in the mid-eighties and ran into the early 2000s. He retired from playing at 41 years old, showing up in a combined 99 games for the Phillies in 2002 and 2003—he actually got the last Phillies out in Veterans Stadium history. The Phillies let Plesac come down and a be a guest instructor in Clearwater this spring, and he could not. Be. More. Pumped.

Here he is about to go through security at the airport. Here he is up at dawn at the training facility. Here he is at the field, remembering being down here for spring trainings with those early aughts Phillies squads who infamously hated the living crap out of each other.

Plesac is 57 years old, and he’s taking in Clearwater like he’s a fan who won a contest. It’s inspiring, but I also appreciate the visual representation of his journey, as it reminds us as we trudge to work and back in ankle-deep city slush, that this is more than just the words “pitchers and catchers” being repeated until somebody snaps; it’s something that, for a few dozen people, is actually happening. It’s another journey at it’s beginning, and that’s a reason to be excited.

Aaron Altherr, too, is fun to watch. You know Altherr from the inside-the-park grand slam off Jordan Zimmermann and the outside-the-park grand slam off Clayton Kershaw. He’s been on the 40-man roster since 2013, and there have been a couple of times when it was thought he could really make something of himself with the big club in Philadelphia. But it hasn’t worked out for Altherr yet, and given the slate of moves the Phillies were projected to make this winter, it seemed fully possible that he may not be with the team this spring.

But here he is, taking off for training camp, leaving behind a heartbroken dog that can barely stand to see him go. Altherr isn’t deterred by anything that’s happened: the .181 BA he put up over 105 games in 2018, his demotion to Lehigh Valley during the season, or the growing consensus that this team may not have a spot for him much longer.

For now, though, that’s not completely true. And once again, Altherr has a preseason calendar in front of him that he could use to make the Phillies notice him. He’s a fun player with a giant smile, and last year, his low output was due to bad luck and poor contact on pitches in the strike zone. This is not an unfixable case, but regardless of that, Altherr has to go into this fully aware that Bryce Harper’s decision from whatever bunker Scott Boras has him in could impact Altherr’s own career in a meaningful way. And despite all that, he has to pack a bag, head to Florida, and play well enough to keep a job.

It’s a bit grimmer of a circumstance than Plesac, but it’s thereality of the situation. Altherr is going to be battling day-to-day ambiguity this spring, as will many players in Phillies camp and camps across Florida and Arizona. Which, while complicated, also simplifies things in a way: Get up. Play ball. Skype with dog (I assume).

Look, hear me out.

Yes, there were a few weeks of this winter in which “Mike Trout grew up a Phillies fan” once more became column fodder for a cross section of uninspired baseball writers. They were able to dress this visited and revisited tidbit of information up as “relevant” by saying hey, the Phillies could just sign Trout when he’s a free agent in 2021 if they miss out on Harper and Machado, but this angle did not freshen the fantasy up a bit.

But that’s not what I’m doing here. Hell, I’m not even suggesting you look at Mike Trout as a baseball player. I’m merely saying that, when it comes to fandom, who is a better model?

Trout is living out the fantasy of anyone who has turned their rec room into a sports bar, only he actually has the millions of dollars to travel to whatever live sporting events that he wants, even when he has to cross the country to do it. And that’s after becoming a professional athlete himself.

I presented evidence a few months ago that perhaps the version of the Phillies Trout grew up watching didn’t make them look like the most appealing franchise to play for once he’d achieved his own stardom; that playing for the Phillies was no longer a dream of his because, as a pro ball player, they were simply just another place to go to work. I stand by that theory—even if Trout were eventually to “come home” and play for the Phillies, it would be because of his hometown and the people living there, not because of some special feeling he’d get by putting on the red pinstripes worn by Travis Lee and Robert Person when he was a kid.

But despite all that, Trout has clearly held onto his childlike enthusiasm for sports, which is hard enough to do as an adult, let alone as someone who has a similar type of job as all the players he’s coming to watch. But there he is, freaking out about getting handed the ball at an Eagles game, and there he is, giving you a little wave at the Sixers game, and there he is, not attending Flyers games like a sane person. Do the millions of dollars and subsequent lack of everyday financial anxiety leave more room for novel indulgences? I would say, yeah, that’s probably what’s going on here. But there’s an emotional toll to being a Philadelphia sports fan, and Trout pays that as well, without, clearly, taking a big enough hit to find other interests, something all of our loved ones have begged us to do from time to time.

After another long offseason of likely owner collusion and rumors of an eventual labor stoppage, after watching bad news spill out of baseball like a sewage leak, after having magic absorbed more and more into reality, sometimes it fair to issue a reminder: It’s okay to enjoy things. We don’t always have to think of baseball as the giant industrial machine it is, with a lot of broken parts and toxic runoff. Sometimes, it’s just nine guys on a diamond.

In a March 1978 issue of Sports Illustrated, writer Frank Deford talked about bringing his eight-year-old son to spring training, quoting Bill Veeck: “...spring training is first and always a time of dreams, of wishful thinking.” You can never get back the ignorant bliss of childhood, but during baseball season, it’s a little easier to slip into it for a few innings.