Had it not been the day after April Fools Day, I would have been tempted to think it was some sort of cruel Catholic prank. Finally, after almost a decade of being trucked around and man handled like some kind of Muppet or weekend-less Bernie, Pope John Paul II had died. Or -- it just being a week after Easter -- had he? Might we not witness a second, second coming?
Turning to the newspapers of April 3, 2005, the conspiratorial question became almost moot. Witness that Sunday's New York Daily News. A 24-page commemorative section focusing on the Pope's life and times was almost eclipsed by 22 pages of baseball coverage. And in the New York Times, an eight-page special section celebrated the Pope's good works -- while the Old Grey Lady dedicated 10 full pages to a standalone baseball preview, as well as three additional pages of coverage in the Sunday Sports section.
Roll back the stone, and as News columnist Bill Gallo wrote, "let the sun shine in." Baseball is back.
Only one thing could preclude the passing of a pontiff: Opening day. At 8 p.m., Sunday, April 3, America's pastime promised the pairing of the New York Yankees -- last season's pinstriped pariahs -- and the Boston Red Sox -- the team that could, and that could still save the game of baseball despite its frustrating failings and foibles.
Just ask Stephen King. A lifelong Red Sox fan, and coauthor of the 2004 season chronicle Faithful, King contributed a piece to the April 3 Times headed, in part, "The Gloom Is Gone in Mudville."
But the gloom that had hung over the Sox like the sword of Damocles since its last World Series win in 1918 ("There's always next season.") -- or the depression felt by Yankees fans following last year's Beantown bounce -- is not the shadow most importantly dispelled by the relative sunlight of opening day. No. I'm talking about the postpartum depression that has festered and grown since 2004's baseball fan finale.
For depressing it was. After the surprising and satisfying success of the Sox, all I wanted was more: More baseball, more games, and more wins. Instead, until the exasperating yet illuminating emergence of the steroid scandal and the loudly lauded auction of baseball memorabilia that included Babe Ruth's record-breaking bat, I wandered aimlessly in a desert of despair. Even those news events were stale saltines compared to the fine fever felt when the Sox steped up to the plate and performed with poise and perfection.
Where to turn for a post-season baseball fan's fix? My only hope was the sports magazines. So, while flying home to the East Coast after Thanksgiving in the Midwest, when I felt the downer at its deepest, I ponied up for the primary players' periodicals: Sports Illustrated, ESPN, and the Sporting News.
The Nov. 29, 2004, issue of Sports Illustrated, leading with a piece on "sportsrafe" following Ron Artest's mid-month basketball fan attack, included a scant two pages of baseball coverage -- less than 2% of its content. Half a page featured reader letters in response to the Nov. 8 SI cover story about "What's next for Boston's new world champions." Half a page addressed the newly minted Washington Nationals' need for a place to play. And a three-column-inch item in Lisa Altobelli's front-of-book column, "The Beat," touched on Shepard Fairey-like Johnny Damon stencils subtly sullying the streets of Brooklyn, New York's best borough.
Readers of the Nov. 22 edition of ESPN, which was almost twice as thick as SI, fared little better. Almost seven pages -- just more than 4% of the magazine -- bandied about baseball. Stuart Scott dedicated his "Two Way" column to the game. Editors nestled a page-plus standing section in the back of the book. And -- to ESPN's credit -- Jeff Bradley contributed a five-page feature about Curt Schilling's contributions to the success of the Sox. At least baseball rated some real estate in the feature well.
And the Sporting News? Well, not only did the Nov. 15 installment of the measly magazine feel like an advertorial for Fox Sports, the sad second to the now-defunct Sport dedicated less than five pages to baseball -- still claiming the top slot with about 8% of its page count. Most of the Sporting News' coverage was short form and dissatisfying, especially the two pages of USA Today-like league reports, which gave about one column inch to each team. While I shouldn't have been surprised -- after all, sports are seasonal -- so much for the majors.
Looking slightly further afield, I tracked down the December issue of Baseball Digest. Founded in 1942, the diminutive, low-design digest is published by the Century Publishing Co. based in Evanston, Illinois. Century also publishes the self-explanatory Basketball Digest, Football Digest, and Hockey Digest; and Baseball Digest's small staff employs about as many people fielded during any given inning.
Now this is a magazine for baseball fans. Not only is 100% of its content dedicated to the game, the 120,000-circulation Baseball Digest targets fair- and foul-weather -- as well as on- and off-season -- fans alike. The near-monthly leverages a learned letter column, contains critical columns about the state of the sport, analyzes a wide array of athletic aspects of notable current players, and holds forth on historic happenings in the "Game I'll Never Forget" interviews.
In every issue, Baseball Digest courts lifelong baseball fans, blending coverage of the new and the old. While the mag is a bit statistic heavy -- which almost makes me numbers numb -- it is a periodical I'll probably peruse regardless of the time of year. If its letter column is any indication, its readers are more intellectually invested in the game; and given the advertisements for the Replay Baseball game, Shepherd's Pro Sports' "throwback jerseys," and MLB Advanced Media baseball tapes -- which offer cassette recordings of radio broadcasts dating from 1951-1988 -- I can rest assured that baseball is a sport that never stops.
Now that the 2005 season has started, the famine of the fans is finished, and we no longer need to turn to magazines for our fix of news and commentary. Still, several weeks ago, I picked up Athlon Sports' MLB Preview and Street & Smith's Baseball Yearbook. King and O'Nan's Faithful perches prominently on my reading pile. As I write, the Yankees are up 4-1 halfway through their opening game against the Sox. And the Mets open against the Reds tomorrow.
Am I glad baseball is back? Heck yeah.