By Sean Dietrich

Major League Baseball spring training started today. I sat on my porch, listening to a radio. And I was cheering. I mean genuinely cheering.

The Atlanta Braves played the Tampa Bay Rays. The national anthem was played. The umpire used his time-ravaged voice to shout, “Play ball!” I couldn’t help but get excited because it’s been a long year. Too long.

I closed my eyes and visualized the players trotting onto the grass of LECOM Park, greeted by their fans. I could almost see the dads drinking beer, kids eating nachos and teenagers taking selfies.

In the theater of my mind the game played beautifully. I could even visualize the occasional kid leaning over the balcony to catch a foul ball — which is one of the great moments of boyhood.

I almost caught a foul-tip once in Fulton County Stadium as a boy. I’ll never forget it. The ball came soaring into the stands, and I knew this was my moment. Time slowed down. The eyes of 52,000 were upon me. I stood beneath the ball. I waved everyone else away.

“I got it!” I shouted. “Gimme room! I got it!”

This was going to be the biggest day of my life. I extended my Mickey Mantle model glove into the air — a mitt my father bought from a yard sale for $1. The ball came down, down, down … “Hey!” I thought, “I’m actually going to catch it!”

But it was not to be.

The ball bounced off the webbing of my glove and landed in the lap of a kid behind me. I heard the lucky bum scream with delight. “I caught it!”

I saw the kid leap. I heard people cheer. The crowd hoisted the kid onto their shoulders for a spontaneous ticker tape parade and the mayor gave him the key to the city.

I still have nightmares about that kid.

Baseball’s spell over me is something I can’t explain. After all, baseball is not real life. The game doesn’t have anything to do with my mortgage, my work or my family. And yet I treat baseball like it ranks somewhere just beneath national security.

Why do I care so much about the statistics of clean-up hitters whose performances have no bearing on my immediate future unless, of course, it’s a pennant race?

The answer is: I don’t know. Believe me, if I knew how to free myself from loving this game, I would. Lord knows the game brings nothing but misery and heartburn to those who love it.

There is no pain like watching your team lose to the Cardinals 13-1 in the National League Division Series. It feels like a funeral, but with cheaper beer.

I ought to be more concerned about important things during a trying era like ours. Instead, I spend time and money keeping up with multimillion-dollar team franchises. Yes! Baseball costs actual money to follow!

It’s not cheap to be a fan these days. Used to, in olden times all you needed was a radio and a cooler. But today to watch a game you need a digital subscription, a smart TV, 12,981 account usernames and passwords, a streaming service, two major credit cards, liquid-fast internet, three forms of legal identification, the blood of a wild boar, etc.

Even so, I don’t care. The game is still being played. And in the midst of a pandemic that has destroyed normal life for everyone, the game inflames me with joy.

Baseball is a link to our heritage. People have been playing baseball on U.S. soil since colonist farmers in knee breeches still spoke with British accents. Early Americans used sacks of wheat for bases and iron skillet lids for home plate. In all likelihood, George Washington probably had a batting average.

My best baseball memory, however, happened last year.

Every afternoon last summer, during the throes of a pandemic, four or five neighbor children would play ball in our dirt road, pausing every inning to allow oncoming cars to pass. They used old pillows for bases and a cooler lid for home plate.

Most often the kids would have a meager audience consisting of middle-aged parents and neighbors who all cradled koozies. We in the crowd would shout phrases like, “Good hustle!” and we’d slow-clap between each batter to prove that we were male.

Sometimes the kids even allowed a few of us neighborhood guys to play with them. Doctors say the cartilage of my knee will never grow back.

Anyway, one night someone hit a foul ball and someone’s 4-year-old brother was nearby shouting, “I got it!” The little white dot sailed above the child who held his hands out and positioned himself beneath the ball.

The baseball came straight down and plunked the boy on the face. The kid fell lifeless to the ground. He was limp. A crowd of panicked adults rushed around him, whereupon the kid leapt to his feet, teeth missing, blood leaking from his chin, smiling and shouting, “I CAUGHT IT, MOM!”

And I’ll never forget when the kid’s mother looked at me, expressionless, and said, “This is why women live longer than men.”

So I realize there are more important things going on in the world right now. And I know there are bigger issues than baseball to worry about. But it’s been a grueling year filled with squabbling, screaming, rioting, grumbling, coughing, cussing and crying.

Gosh, it feels nice to cheer for a change.