In many ways, this is a great time for baseball fans. The season finished nearly three weeks ago, the dust has settled on another campaign, and attention is slowly turning towards the long winter ahead. It's an anxious period in the baseball calendar, with free agents about to hit the open market and trade bait being dangled tentatively over the water. At this time of year, there is often more baseball permutations to think about than during the regular season or playoffs. It's quite compelling.
I've always loved baseball's off-season. It may seems strange, with no games taking place for nearly five months from November until Spring Training the following year, but there is a certain tranquility which I find appealing. In the wide-reaching vocabulary of baseball, I struggle to find a more appropriate term than Hot Stove, the collective phrase used to describe it's off-season wheeling and dealing. It rightfully conjures up images of baseball fans gathered around small camp fires during the bleak winter months to discuss the travails of their team, second-guess the General Manager, and evaluate the star free agent seeking a huge contract. As a Cubs fan, I'm already fretting about the need for veteran leadership on the club, analysing every word from Theo Epstein & Jed Hoyer, and gauging the long-term effects of maybe signing Robinson Cano. Such is the way of baseball in winter; it opens your mind to a world of possibility. The Hot Stove thrives on speculation, is maintained by the frenzied interest of fans, and will likely consume vast portions of your time in the coming weeks. My stomach is all fuzzy with excitement already.
Whilst the current free agent class receives predominant attention during these Hot Stove discussions, there is also a special place for historical debates at this time. In the pantheon of sports, baseball preserves it's history with more care than any other. Accordingly, fans are able to compare players, managers, ballparks and even writers from different eras with precise accuracy. It won't take long this winter before you're bored of all other sports and begin to discuss whether or not Ted Williams would have challenged the home run record if World War II never happened. In time, you'll likely debate whether Mantle was greater than Mays, whether DiMaggio's streak will ever be broken, or who will be the next home run king. If all else fails, you will return to the old chestnut: should Pete Rose be elected to the Hall of Fame? You see, when baseball has calmed from its relentless in-season pace, fans have more time to appreciate it. The longing for a baseball season is often more intense than the pleasure derived when it's actually here, and these Hot Stove nuggets fuel the fire.
I also tend to read more about baseball in the off-season. The dark evenings provide a great backdrop to delve into a book by favourite authors, such as Roger Kahn, George Vecsey or even Dan Shaughnessy. In the winter, when baseball is played only in the minds of avid fans worldwide, there can be nothing better than being transported to a different era, via the book, and learning about this games glorious history. Also, there is much more besides game recaps and box scores to interest on all main MLB news websites at this time of year, with trade rumours and free agent whispers holding intrigue and again opening up a world of possibility. I often spend hours each day searching for baseball news during the winter, and have done for years. It's special. When the game pauses for a five-month hiatus, there is a chance for diehard fans to educate themselves with great literature and news writing, all of which ignites hope for the season ahead.
That hope is the essence of fandom. Even against our better logical judgement, even against the words of experts and executives, even against historical proclivity, we're brought back every single year by the eternal hope of seeing something great. For me, this hope is farmed in winter, when the trade buzz, the free agent excitement, the historical discussions and the classic literature build to occupy time and create a deep yearning for baseball! It's the most wonderful time of the year.