On The Trail: Thoughts of spring

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Hallelujah! Spring has sprung. Always welcome.

It’s the time of year when surges of optimism and newfound energy propel you through your daily rounds, placing a gleeful hop in your step. In the background are the happy melodies of songbirds celebrating the arrival of mating and nesting season, as vociferous turkeys establish territory with loud, daybreak gobbles from distant hardwood ridges. You can’t miss the sights, sounds and smells of spring, all gleaming harbingers to days of Bermuda shorts, cotton T-shirts and Birkenstocks. What a rush.

Unfortunately, there’s no denying spring can also be a time of potential mischief and conflict for the young. I know. I lived it. Yes, I endured many confrontations with classroom disciplinarians who couldn’t teach and could indeed keep you away from the baseball diamond. Then, when you got to play, some coaches were more focused on character-building and discipline and dress codes than fundamentals and winning, a regimen that typically ends badly. To me, the regimented routine was too stifling, providing little wiggle-room for free-spirited enthusiasm. You know that tired old team concept that offers little space for autonomy as everyone wears the same jackets, hats and haircuts, speaks the identical diamond jargon, toes the same authoritarian line with no room for meander. Those days are long behind me. Though I have not forgotten them, I hold no lingering resentment. What did it mean? It’s history. You only live once. Why dwell on the negative? I had my day, had my fun, moved on and have not missed it a bit. Honest.

Spring, to me, always signaled fishing free-flowing streams away from the watchful eye of authority and, later, getting into my spot before dawn to hunt turkeys, deer or bear occasionally passing through dawn’s ground fog. But more than anything else, to me it meant the crack of flame-tempered, wooden Louisville Sluggers, backhanding tough trap-hops, chasing down a gapper and snagging it fully extended over your shoulder. It was trying to beat out a ground bal in the hole for an infield hit, dumping the double-play pivot man head over heels on a takeout slide, stealing a base, racing from first to third or second to home on a single. Yes, back in the day, there was nowhere I’d rather be than on a baseball diamond, or even playing three-man stickball against a brick wall for that matter.

What was not to like? It was all good, right down to playful dugout banter with teammates on the bench between at-bats, stepping into the pressure-packed batter’s box in do-or-die situations, focusing on the pitcher’s release whether batting, playing in the field or kneeling in the on-deck circle, studying the man on the mound you were about to face.

“Your at-bat starts in the on-deck circle,” I was told by a friend and former pro ballplayer I respected greatly. I never forgot his valuable advice, and passed it on to kids I coached in later years. Hitting is all about focus, discipline and having a plan. You can’t be anxious. It’s all about being patient, waiting for your pitch, laying off the junk a pitcher wants you to chase. If confident, you succeed. If not, you fail. And dealing with failure is essential even for the great ones, who are unsuccessful more than 60 percent of the time.

When you think of it, stream-fishing for trout is not all that different. An angler must first learn to execute pinpoint casts, placing bait where fish are feeding without spooking them. Over time, all anglers learn where fish position their feeding lairs relative to the stream’s flow. Then, once you know where to find them, you must be able to present your bait in a natural, dead-drift manner that doesn’t spook them with detectable drag. It takes timing and finesse, not all that different than spiking a curveball to the opposite field. They’re transferable skills from the diamond to the stream. Both tasks require strategy, the three-step checklist of identification, patience and execution. When all three components flow in unison, success is probable. Screw up on any one of the three and the odds are against you. Which doesn’t mean you can never make a loud splashy cast and catch a fish, or drop an ugly bloop single over the infield despite being totally fooled on a pitch. It happens, but not often enough to remain relevant for long.

Same with turkey hunting, which also requires a heavy dose of discipline and patience, even after you have learned about wild-turkey behavior. That means not being overaggressive with your calls, sitting painfully motionless and waiting for precisely the right moment to squeeze the trigger. Though I don’t recall ever squeezing the trigger on a turkey and returning empty-handed, I have seen it happen and, yes, even the best of the best can make mistakes, then, most importantly, learn from them. If you’re patient and wait till the bird’s no more than 25 yards (preferably 10 or 15) out with his head straight up, it’s automatic. This waiting game requires total concentration and focus, a lot like a right-handed hitter recognizing a good outside slider, waiting, cutting down on his swing and shooting a line-drive single over the second-baseman’s head. Have the discipline to make contact off your back hip and you succeed. Try to pull it, and, unless very lucky, you’re done. Hitting is all about discipline. Success is less apt to visit overaggressive, undisciplined hitters swinging from the heels, just like it’s elusive to anglers who make bad casts or turkey hunters who move too much. The wrong approach seldom produces good results.

Hmmmm? What inspired this midday, first-day-of-spring ramble? Must have been that morning walk with the dogs. Even gray skies, frozen ground and predicted overnight snow couldn't dampen my spirits. Who cares? Spring is here. I guess old-timers get the fever, too.

Recorder sports editor Gary Sanderson is a senior-active member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Blog: www.tavernfare.com.
Email: gsand53@outlook.com.