Pitchers and catchers report.
Those four words, to me at least, signal the first day of spring.
Never mind Super Bowl Sunday, which kicked off the month, or Groundhog Day, when Staten Island Sam poked his head out of a hole to predict six more weeks of winter.
The distinctive crack of bat on ball supersedes all that. It also evokes memories of a boyhood passion that morphed into a love affair between man and game.
After we get past Valentine’s Day, the Mets and Yankees will join the 28 other baseball teams in a six-week Sun Belt ritual called spring training. It is part work, part play, and a great place for legions of frozen fans seeking to cut their winters short.
Ballclubs spend two weeks in drills and calisthenics, then start a monthlong series of exhibition games that don’t count for anything more than gate receipts and bragging rights. Hope springs eternal every spring — even though both local baseball teams fared as poorly last year as their football counterparts.
To long-suffering New York fans not satisfied to support losers, the 2015 season actually started last month at the Waldorf-Astroria Hotel. That’s when the Baseball Writers Association of America introduced a quartet of new inductees to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
All have New York ties.
Pedro Martinez, a diminutive Dominican with the best winning percentage since 1950, made the National League All-Star team twice during his four-year tenure with the Mets.
Randy Johnson, another starting pitcher, wore Yankees pinstripes between star turns with the Seattle Mariners and Arizona Diamondbacks.
Long Island native Craig Biggio played across the Hudson at Seton Hall before joining the Houston Astros.
And John Smoltz, the only player in uniform for the record 14-year divisional title run of the Atlanta Braves, won his major league debut at Shea Stadium.
Together, the Class of 2015 had 33 All-Star selections, nine Cy Young awards for pitching excellence, four Gold Gloves for exceptional fielding, and a World Series MVP trophy — not to mention a myriad citations for league leadership in earned run average, strikeouts, and victories. Johnson alone finished with 303 wins, a total only four previous lefthanders exceeded.
“Even before I joined the Yankees, I loved coming to New York as a visiting player,” revealed Johnson, who was dubbed The Big Unit because of his 6’10” frame. “I loved talking to the ticket vendors and other people who worked at the ballpark. And then later, playing for (manager) Joe Torre and playing with Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams, who wouldn’t love that?”
On his first day with the Yankees, Johnson was heading to the clubhouse with his bags when he heard a familiar voice.
“Tiger, tiger, tiger,” called Tom Seaver, then a broadcaster for the team. “You’re pitching today. You can’t be carrying your own bags.”
Johnson explained that “tiger” was a term applied by longtime USC baseball coach Rod Dedeaux to all of his players since he had trouble remembering their names. Both Seaver and Johnson were alumni who recognized the sound of one USC product calling another.
The towering lefthander, who knows the history of the game, revealed that he remembered Whitey Ford asking him for an autograph and Yogi Berra sitting down to talk.
A more recent Cooperstown denizen who played for the Yankees called Johnson immediately after hearing that the pitcher topped this year’s induction class with 97 percent of the vote. “How come you got more votes than I did?” a playful Reggie Jackson demanded.
Although Johnson’s plaque is likely to sport the logo of the Arizona Diamondbacks, he can’t forget his Yankee links. “I can’t wait to get to Cooperstown,” said the five-time Cy Young Award winner, who pitched no-hitters in both leagues. “I’m really excited to meet Babe Ruth.”
Martinez has already been to the upstate hamlet. In fact, he started the annual Hall of Fame game last summer. That exhibition game appearance will make him the first pitcher to appear in a game at Cooperstown one summer and return as a Hall of Fame inductee a year later.
Only the second Dominican elected to the Hall, Martinez visited Cooperstown with the Montreal Expos as a young player.
“I remember looking at the old-timers’ gloves and wondering how they could catch a ball hit that hard,” he said of his first look at the museum. “Then I saw Ruth’s bat and wondered how he could hit with it. Now I’m going back as an old goat.”
Martinez, whose first piece of memorabilia was a Reggie Jackson baseball, noted that the New York media exacerbated the rivalry between the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, for whom he pitched at the peak of his career.
“New York is intimidating,” he said. “It was always a challenge pitching against the Yankees — they were loaded.”
“Yankee fans wanted to get to me but deep down in their hearts they appreciate you and everything you do. To them, it’s win or nothing. In Queens, (Mets) fans are different. They’re wild and happy but they settle for what they have.”
Smoltz, the only pitcher with at least 200 wins and 150 saves, never faced Johnson but had some epic duels against Martinez and Biggio. His Braves won more pennants in the ‘90s than any other team, but lost the 1996 and 1999 World Series to the Yankees.
Biggio reached the World Series only once but notched a major milestone with 3,000 hits.
This year’s induction class is the largest selected by the writers since 1955, the year the Brooklyn Dodgers won their only world championship. The Hall of Fame induction is slated for July 26 in Cooperstown.