Everybody loves spring training. It is a time of optimism, of fresh starts. Every team is a pennant contender. Everyone is happy.
Whenever I start overdosing on all the syrupy good vibes and high hopes, I make it a point to visit the Pottstown Chokers and their gloomy and dyspeptic manager, Harold (Happy) Fungo.
What's up, Hap?
"Everybody's salary. Except mine, of course. My whole team was a holdout this spring. They all have the same agent, you know. They all reported three weeks late and 23 pounds overweight."
But you'll have 'em ready to go by opening day, right?
"If the commissioner decides to move opening day to some time in August."
Seriously, howya doin', Happy?
"Terrible. Couldn't be worse."
But you look sensational. You look younger. Your wrinkles and bags are gone. Tell me the truth. Did you have your face lifted?
"No, but I had the rest of my body lowered. Makes me less conspicuous, know what I mean?"
You kill me, Happy. This is spring training! Birds are singing, the sun is shining!
"Vultures don't sing, pal. They just kind of gulp, like they got something caught in their throat. As for the sun shining, three of my players are out with heat exhaustion and two with sunburn. This snowstorm blowing in right now is the best thing that's happened all spring."
I guess that's the advantage of being the only big league team that trains in Montana. Say, I thought you gave up cigars?
"This isn't a cigar, it's my lunch. Dried and rolled seaweed, the only thing that doesn't aggravate my ulcers."
But you're lighting it up, Hap.
"No, I'm cooking it. You can't eat this stuff raw."
Speaking of bad taste, what about your team? Is this the year the Chokers will finally make a run at the flag?
"You mean the white flag? We'll be waving it like crazy by Memorial Day."
Happy, every other big league manager is talking pennant now. This is the happiest time of the year.
"Right. There's a pattern all managers follow, seasons within the season. March is empty-headed happiness. April is cautious optimism. May is serious concern. June is panic. July is fear and loathing. August is open weeping.
"Me, I like to get the happy stuff out of the way the first day or two of spring training, preferably before the players report, then get right to the gloom, which is what this game is all about. This spring I'm ahead of schedule."
Great. Did the front office make any moves in the off-season?
"You kidding? They moved every week. This is the only big league team with corporate offices in an unmarked Winnebago."
No, I mean deals. Any good off-season deals?
"We're pretty excited about having a goose in the bullpen this season."
Wow! Goose Gossage?
"No, just a plain goose. The owner thought it would be nice to put some barnyard animals in the bullpen, give the guys out there something to do with their spare time, when nobody is warming up. Like during the national anthem."
I understand you're going to emphasize little ball this season.
"That's what our team is best suited for."
That makes sense. With no power in the lineup, you're best bet is bunting, stealing, hit-and-run.
"No, driving, chipping and putting. Little ball, as in golf. We've got some outstanding golfers on this team. If the league would allow our guys to tee up the baseball at home plate, I think you'd see a big improvement in the batting averages."
What about bright spots. There must be one. I hear you have a strong bench.
"You're absolutely right. Our bench is very strong. It's the players sitting on that bench I'm worried about."
At least the Choker fans are still the greatest, Happy. You guys finish dead last 14 years in a row, you insult the intelligence and artistic sensibilities of an entire city, and just look up there in the grandstands. It's packed with screaming fans!
"Those aren't fans. Our owner put an ad in the local paper this morning. Those are people applying for my job."
I thought you had a lifetime contract.
"I do, but the owner calls me every day and asks me if I'm still alive."
This is terribly depressing, Hap. I think I've picked up enough gloom here to last me through the rest of spring training. Thanks.
"My pleasure, sport. Have a nice day."