Sports column by Matt Dickerson: Appreciating baseball and the warmth of Arizona

I am writing my column this week from Tucson, Ariz. I am here watching my son play baseball with the Middlebury College Panthers on their annual spring break trip. Ten games in eight days, with the final three against archrival Williams.

My fellow Independent columnist Karl Lindholm is the faculty adviser to the baseball team. Though he is away this year in Cameroon, blogging and sending in columns from afar (and perhaps tracking the team), I suspect he would affirm: It’s a lot of baseball to watch out in the Arizona sunshine. A lot of sunscreen to apply to my nose (and ears and arms and legs.)

There is also a lot of heat down here. At 6 p.m. on Monday — the third day of the trip and the second in a row with two games — it was still 84 degrees. I have been wearing shorts and sandals. And still sweating, even when I am sitting still.

It is good for the players to be outdoors, though. They haven’t been able to practice outdoors in Vermont yet. This is because, as many of you readers may have noticed, there is about two feet of snow on the ground, and temperatures have generally been somewhere between the teens (those are the highs for the day) and (at night) down in the single digits on the wrong side of zero. (I have been getting Vermont weather updates from my family while I have been away.)

Now baseball is not an “outdoor sport” — not in the usual sense of that label. It is played outdoors, of course. Or it is supposed to be, though the Middlebury College baseball team has reason to question even that assessment. Sometimes it is played in beautiful outdoor settings. It is even an un-motorized sport. But it is played on a carefully engineered and manicured field surrounded by human artifacts like metal fences, foul poles, stadium seats, and hot dog stands. And when any wildlife gets involved in a baseball game there is almost certainly something amiss. (When fish get involved in a baseball game, there is definitely something amiss.)

Baseball is also a warm weather sport. Which is why it is played in places like Tucson. Except for the part about keeping grass growing, it is otherwise a good place to make a baseball field. Tucson is flat. Flat and hot. Flat and hot and dry. (I know I already mentioned the hot part, but it is worth repeating.) It is not quite as flat as Lake Champlain on a calm day. But close. It is a desert. It sits at over 2,600 feet in elevation, which is quite a bit higher than the highest town in Vermont. (Killington, the highest I know of, lists its elevation as a mere 1,240 feet.) And Tucson is surrounded by peaks much higher still — higher than any point in Vermont. The Catalina mountains, visible to the north of the city, jut up to more than double the elevation of Mount Mansfield. The Santa Rita mountains are visible to the south of Tucson. Though a little further away, they are even taller. No matter which way I am facing, every time I take a photo of a game, I see rugged mountain peaks in the background.

Now I am told that these mountains do get some occasional snow. In fact, I was told that climbing the mountains from the altitude of Tucson up to the peaks brings one through a climate change equivalent to driving from Mexico to Canada. But there is no snow on the mountains now.

I am here with lots of other parents and grandparents and friends who have come from various parts of the country to watch the Middlebury Panthers play baseball. Most are from states warmer than Vermont. Some are from downright hot states. At the first game, there were Middlebury fans from Tucson. At least one parent drove over from southwestern Texas. Some came from southern California. And we got to chatting a bit, as parents will do. When they find out I live in Vermont, a look of great pity comes over their eyes. “It must be terrible,” they say, “living with all that snow and cold. You must be delighted to be down here in Arizona and to have escaped it all.”

“Actually,” I reply, “I love the snow. I even love the cold.”

I have had this conversation more than once. At this point in the conversation, a look of incomprehension passes over their faces as though I had just spoken in some other language. I have to repeat myself, slowly, enunciating each word. “I love the snow. I prefer cold weather to hot. I am sad to be missing out on great cross-country skiing right now.”

The look of confusion remains. I explain. When you are cold, you can always put on more layers. But when you are hot, there is only so much you can take off. (Especially if you are an overweight 50-year-old like me.)

For a moment, they appear at a loss, as though I’ve won the argument with that last bit of logic. But then they smile. “Air conditioning,” they reply.

“Wood stoves,” I answer right back. I think I have won the argument. Or at least battled to a draw. They just shake their heads sadly, mumble something about shoveling snow, throw in a few expletives to describe that snow, and either walk off or change the subject. And I reach for more sunscreen.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am enjoying watching baseball here in Tucson, but mostly because I enjoy watching my son play baseball. Even in March, it is way too hot for me. It is also about four hours’ drive to the nearest year-round trout fishing. Vermont has the climate (and rivers and forests) for me. By the time you are reading this column, I will be packing up for my return home, and it will be none too soon.

In just two short weeks, on April 12, I will be able to do what Vermont anglers do. Opening day of the trout season. Weekend of the annual Otter Creek Classic fishing tournament. I will be standing out in an icy stream, looking at riverbanks still buried in snow, thawing ice on the guides of my rod, freezing my finger tips, wondering why I didn’t bring a bigger thermos of coffee and more hand warmers. And in the afternoons I’ll be able to do what Vermont baseball parents have been doing for generations: standing out on a windy field in 40-degree air freezing my anatomy off in order to see my son pitch.

And I’ll be thinking it wouldn’t be so bad to be back in Tucson watching some baseball.

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