THE SWALLOWS come back to Capistrano. The monarch butterflies flutter away from Pacific Grove. Every spring. And every spring, the new baseball books arrive, polished and scrubbed, brimming with promise, kids on the first day of school.
Have the Phillies ever had a bleaker spring? OK, 1960 comes to mind. Maybe '61, the year they wound up losing 23 in a row. You are going to need a good baseball book or two or three to get you through the summer.
Leading off, "Where Nobody Knows Your Name." It is John Feinstein's sympathetic take on life in baseball's minor leagues. He looks at life from both sides now, young guys lusting for that life-changing call to The Show; old guys hoping for one more shot, the ultimate second chance, scuffling to get back to the big leagues.
Works his way through Triple A baseball with three pitchers, three position players, two managers and an umpire. Tells their stories in tomato-pie simplicity. No anchovies, no pineapple on this pizza.
You will recognize at least two of the names: Scott Elarton, the pitcher who talked himself into a tryout with the Phillies. And Scott Podsednik, the outfielder who hit that memorable World Series homer for the White Sox and was unemployed 2 years later.
Batting second, "1954" by Bill Madden, the Hall of Fame writer for the New York Daily News. Why '54 if you're going to write about baseball and race? Didn't the Dodgers change the game forever in 1947 when they signed Jackie Robinson?
But what about the rest of the nation? Seven years later, 1954, that's when the nine-man Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education, banning segregation in America's public schools.
The Giants won it all in '54 with Willie Mays, Monte Irvin and Hank Thompson in the lineup. Other teams had decided the Robinson "experiment" was working and had integrated their rosters. Sure, there were snow-white holdouts, the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Phillies.
Madden tells the story eloquently. There is even tribute paid to Dick Young, the crusty writer who changed the way the game was covered. Young's advice to young writers, "Don't try to be a bleeping Hemingway."
Writers? There's an anthology out there now, "For the Love of Baseball." Essays written by an all-star lineup. Ends with a piece by Roger Angell. Read it and you'll see why they waived the rules to give Angell the Spink Award even though he's not a member of the Baseball Writers' Association of America.
The book contains articles by Frank Deford, Bart Giamatti, George Plimpton, Gay Talese, which makes it special, all that wit and wisdom between the same set of covers, writing about a game they love.
When Cole Hamels gets back, it might be "Cliff and Cole, then dig a hole" for the Phillies this season. Rich Westcott's book, "Great Stuff," deals with amazing pitching feats, including Robin Roberts throwing 28 consecutive complete games.
There's a chapter on Lefty, Steve Carlton, and the season he won 27 for a Phillies team that won 59 all year. And a quote from Bob Boone, "First time I caught him it was like, wow, this guy is unbelievable. It was like going from a Volkswagen to a Mercedes. I can tell you, he was the best I ever caught. He was just awesome."
And you thought Boone and Lefty didn't get along.
Bill Felber goes all the way back in the day, to 1897, for a colorful book called "A Game of Brawl." It's the rowdy story of the scramble for the 1897 pennant between the Orioles and the Beaneaters.
Beaneaters, that's what the Boston team was called, long before they became the Red Sox. Broke the rules, broke noses, broke records, sang "Sweet Adeline" between innings. Fascinating story, richly told.
Doug Harvey has collaborated with Peter Golenbock on a disturbing book titled "They Called Me God." Subtitle is, "The Best Umpire Who Ever Lived."
Maybe, maybe not. Harvey was a terrific umpire, a commanding presence on the field. Says he never missed a call. Missed one here. Lots of stuff he could have left out, too many out-of-school stories about other umpires, about players, about managers.
AJ Mass, that's right, no periods between A and J, has written a memoir called "Yes, It's Hot in Here" about his stint as Mr. Met. Writes about other baseball mascots, too. Writes about Max Patkin, the Clown Prince of Baseball, and gets that wrong.
Some good memories of Dave Raymond as the original Phanatic, still the best mascot in baseball after all these years.