They don't call it hardball for nothing

When ballclubs report to spring training every year, the first few days are spent getting organized. Before the exhibition games begin, the players undergo physical exams, they participate in team drills, and they engage in the one baseball activity at which I excelled in my younger days. They play catch.

I was pretty good at it if I do say so myself. I affected just the right air of studied nonchalance that a good game of catch requires. It's important that you don't look like you're trying too hard, yet at the same time your attitude can't be so indifferent that it looks like you don't care. Achieving the proper balance of caring, but not that much, is, I have found, the key to success in playing catch.

Of course, there were limits to my expertise. If my partner were a good ballplayer with a good arm, once he got loosened up a bit he might start throwing the ball with a little mustard on it. Then, when the ball would land in the pocket of my mitt with a thunk, my gloved hand would begin throbbing with pain and -- this is where the nonchalant attitude became difficult to maintain -- I'd have to casually toss it back, knowing it would be coming back at me probably even harder than before. I'd have to feign indifference to how hard it might be thrown. Above all, you can't wince when the ball thunks against your already-tender hand. The solution to the problem of the aching hand is, of course, to snag the ball in the webbing of the glove, thus avoiding any actual actual contact between ball and hand. This requires making a waving pass at the ball with your mitt. In this way you can bring relief to your sore hand, but there is a certain amount of danger to it. In the act of waving your glove at the ball you might miss it entirely. Then you have to chase after it until it stops rolling. Humiliating as that is, it's not the ultimate humiliation. That occurs when the ball finally comes to a stop, you pick it up and realize -- if you've got a chicken-arm like I had -- that there is no way you can throw it far enough to get to your catching partner. So you have to jog back to where you started while the other guy waits impatiently with his hands on his hips. Time to move on to another activity.

Infield practice. Not my strength. I could never get my glove down low enough to prevent grounders from skipping through my legs. "Get your glove down low!" I was urged again and again. But when I did, the ball, bounding through the pebbled infield we used to play on, would bounce up and hit me in the arm, or chest, or even face -- sometimes hard enough to make me forget the tender hand I had from playing catch. The infield and I were not made for each other. Besides, with my weak arm the only infield position I could possibly play was second base. Throwing a ball all the way across the diamond was an unfulfilled fantasy.

That left the outfield. I could catch flyballs -- if I could reach them. Did I mention that I was a bit slow afoot? Then there was the problem of getting the ball back to the infield. The cutoff man used to have to come so far into the outfield to catch my throws that he needed a cutoff man to catch his.

As for my hitting, let's just say that I was a defensive specialist.

I loved it, but baseball was a hard game for me, as it is for most kids.

Even those kids in the neighborhood who had some native ability -- who could throw a ball with speed and accuracy and who scooped up ground balls with seeming ease -- even for them, as the level of competition increased, baseball became hard.

It's true for everyone, even the most gifted. Baseball is a hard game.

I remember some years ago reading about Johnny Bench of the Cincinnati Reds, one of the greatest catchers in baseball history. In 1968, he was the Rookie of the Year in the National League, won a Gold Glove Award, and made the all-star team, all when he was only 20 years old. He was the league MVP at the age of 22. His talent was such that baseball came very easily to him then. But as the years went by, as he suffered the bumps and bruises to which all catchers fall victim, as his reflexes slowed by just a fraction of a second, as the pressure to sustain his level of excellence increased, what had been easy for him became difficult. He had to work at it. He eventually learned what everyone who ever played baseball learns. How hard the game can be.

When Ted Williams first broke in with the Red Sox, he cared not one whit about playing defense; all he wanted to do was hit. But he realized that if he was going to be recognized as a great ballplayer he had to improve his play in the field. He drafted Dom DiMaggio, a defensive genius, to teach him the finer points of outfield play. He spent countless hours learning to play caroms off the old left field wall. He made himself into a good, if not great fielder. None of it was easy. In fact, it was hard for him.

When Jimmy Dugan, the crusty old manager played by Tom Hanks in the wonderful movie "A League of Their Own" is confronted by his star catcher (played by Geena Davis) about how hard the game of baseball is, he looks her in the eye and says, "Of course it's hard. It's supposed to be hard. If it was easy, everyone would do it. Hard is what makes it great."

Even the likes of Johnny Bench and Ted Williams eventually discovered the truth in that. I, like millions of others, discovered it before I was ten years old.

- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox “Poet Laureate” and The Pilot’s recently minted Sports’ columnist.