Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

Play Ball? But Baby, It's Cold Outside

The unusually chilly April is proving to be a cruel month for baseball players. It's not really a surprise that a disproportionate number of major leaguers come from warm-weather climates. Cold temperatures are not ideal for the boys of summer.

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

Oh, let's move on to another kind of bat, the kind that goes with pinstripes and diamonds.

Here's commentator Frank Deford.

FRANK DEFORD: The most cringing - eeeh - sensation you're supposed to remember from your school days is, yes, fingernails on the blackboard. But for me, and I'm sure for any kid who ever played baseball, there is no more painful memory than hitting the baseball in cool weather and having a bat stinging my hands. Ooh, man that hurt.

For that matter, it hurt just to catch a baseball when it was unseasonably chilly. But then, in the upper parts of the United States, isn't it really usually always unseasonably chilly in April? Is April ever seasonable?

T.S. Eliot, who grew up in St. Louis and Massachusetts, knew exactly what he was saying when he wrote that April is the cruelest month. Yes, in most of what is generously called temperate America, spring is a myth. And this year, of course, it's ridiculous. This year there is no April at all, just a 61-day March.

And 2007 is surely the cruelest month ever for baseball. Of course, spring is when schools usually play baseball. That is why I am sure there are a few northerners in professional baseball. Indeed, the Society for Baseball Research has figures which show that a disproportionate number of American major leaguers come from the Southern part of the country.

Northern boys suffer no climate discrimination in other sports. But a kid, say, from Michigan and Maryland simply doesn't get the chance to play baseball anywhere near as much as his counterpart from Georgia or California. College teams down South start playing their regular season before professionals even go to spring training.

DEFORD: A pitcher only needs 60 feet, six inches of warm gymnasium to perfect his art, so the climate doesn't mean as much when it comes to pitching. As a consequence, there is almost surely a greater percentage of Northern pitchers than Northern batters in the majors.

Tom Glavine of the Mets, who grew up in Massachusetts, is approaching his 300th victory, and he played hockey for most of the year when he was a kid. Glavine is exhibit A to the theory that teams ought to sign Northern pitchers because the weather didn't allow them to pitch so much as kids so their arms have been better preserved.

Much has been made, too, of the large numbers of Latin American ballplayers, and certainly it is the economic consideration which draws so many young Hispanics into the game. But at least some of the phenomenon can be ascribed to the beneficial baseball climate in the Caribbean.

One of the things we keep hearing about is how fewer African-Americans make it to the majors these days. But that is obscured by the larger truth that there are also fewer Caucasians making it. There are simply few Americans, white or black, in the majors now.

And with the many Hispanics and more and more Sunbelt Americans being able to play the old ballgame where there really is a spring, the national pastime is becoming the Southern pastime.

INSKEEP: Frank Deford, senior contributing writer at Sports Illustrated, who joins us each Wednesday from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford