If there’s one trend evident in virtually every culture throughout the history of civilization, it’s the need for man to mark the seasons with some ritual event. Whether by feast, festival or holiday, the overwhelming and instinctual impulse to celebrate the earth’s tilt remains such an enduring human desire that it’s utterly ancient — even prehistoric.
When conifers stand out in an otherwise emaciated forest and the first snowfall of winter blankets the landscape, folks often say it feels like Christmas. Well, more accurately, it feels like the winter solstice. Religions come and go, but human nature never changes. Think about it: it’s hardly a coincidence how so many holidays fall in such close proximity. Call it parallelism, when not blatant imitation — but they always schedule these things for a reason.
Yet, among all the astronomical events of the calendar year, none carries with it quite the sense of unchallenged promise as that of the vernal equinox. From Babylon to Jerusalem to the Celtic forests of Central Europe, the sacred transition from a season of death to one of life bore intense significance.
This proves equally true in the here and now, and the end result remains a product of cultural interpretation. And in America, the rites of spring can be defined almost entirely in two words: opening day.
Stepping out upon a balcony in the early weeks of April, the sensory association becomes wholly palpable. The first scent of fresh cut grass and smoke trailing off a blazing grill laden with assorted meats. The sounds of a city street brimming with hundreds of liberated souls leaving office and subway station for a more verdant destination. And, last but certainly foremost, the sight of a group of kids carrying on the American pastime.
Whether on a tended diamond shadowed by grandstands, at the neighborhood park or just in some vacant lot behind a long abandoned five n’ dime, the commencement of the baseball season ushers in the spring. Without the game, Persephone remains captive in Hades. Without the game, it’s a bastardized version of spring, at best.
Without baseball, it’s just April in Madison.
As thousands of Wisconsinites ventured to Miller Park earlier this month for the state’s grandest opening day festivities, the Cream City and its Crew played in the season with a 6-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates. At last, baseball was in swing. Local heads turned toward the dominant clubs of each respective municipality — be it junior, prep, college or some degree of pro.
However, in a town that lives and dies by the cardinal and white, the baseball diamonds of Madison continue to lay dormant each and every spring. A void left gaping when the university slashed the varsity baseball team in an effort to balance its athletic department under the mandate of Title IX. On paper it surely seemed an ideal candidate for the axe — a high-maintenance sport without the screaming revenue potential of football or the commercial exploitability of basketball and hockey.
And, on a side note, what a fine thing the Kohl Center has become. Bereft of the usual pageantry of college sports and replaced with pickle-eating contests and other ridiculous corporate spectacles. Baseball could never compete fiscally with any of the programs housed within the Dayton Street barn. Thus ensuring its continued expendability.
But, of course, no good Wisconsinite — including this columnist — would ever place either sport upon the Title IX alter solely in the interest of restoring varsity baseball. There must be another way to make room under the cap. The University of Wisconsin owes it to the campus and greater Madison community to at least explore the possibilities.
With the Mallards’ season a painful two months off, spring baseball in Madtown is simply nowhere to be found. And while the area remains abundant with prep programs, the city lacks a single cultural unifier — something every Madisonian can look to as the advent of spring. No disregard to the teams of Madison West or Edgewood College, but the second largest urban community in the state of Wisconsin requires something grander to serve that role. After all, this isn’t New London.
For the love of baseball and the authenticity of spring, it’s time for the university to start ringing in this undefined season the only way Madison knows how: with college sports.
So fire up the grills and call in the mayor for an opening pitch — we’re long overdue to play ball.