March angst brings April hope

And I thought having St. Patrick’s Day fall on a Friday was the coolest thing ever ...

In yet another shining moment exemplifying the very fact that I am indeed the luckiest man on the face of the earth, the national championship of mens’ college basketball and opening day for my beloved Baltimore Orioles will both take place this coming Monday. Shoot, throw in the fact that the two Final Four semifinal games will take place Saturday, and I see no reason whatsoever for me to leave my couch for three solid days. Or shower. Or wear pants. Or ...

Well, you get the point.

This is pure nirvana for the flat-bottomed, Cheetos-stained, cliché-spitting sports Neandrethal that I so proudly represent in this space. The Final Four represents the culmination of a season of hard work, good bounces and perseverance for the athletes who are fortunate enough to reach such dizzying heights and, in my case, allows me to simply root for whomever I see fit — largely because my bracket long ago busted like a campaign promise.

First off, there is no sporting event in this nation that captures the public’s imagination like the NCAA basketball tournament. The action on the court is a non-stop parade of thrilling heroics — grabbing the hearts of millions of viewers through sheer elation or utter despair. We often initially watch because of the brackets filled out in the days before the tournament, but we become emotionally invested because of the force of will and grace of talent exhibited by the athletes on the courts.

And it all boils down to these four teams.

Do we stop watching just because some smart-alecky new reporter (for the sake of anonymity, we’ll refer to him here as “Jonathan Sparkey”) already clinched the office pool? No, it’s an impossibility.

You can’t watch a Western without sticking around to see the good guy ride off into the sunset, you can’t watch a soap opera without waiting for the character to come out of a cashmere-induced coma and you can’t watch the NCAA tournament without experiencing the satisfaction of watching a 7-foot man do an interview with a basketball net around his neck.

Look, I don’t make the rules. I just follow them.

And, as a rule, I spend this time each year convincing myself that this is indeed the season the Orioles awaken from their 23-year slumber and bring home the World Series trophy. Well, I guess it’s become more of a game than a rule lately, as the challenge to generate optimism becomes increasingly difficult with each year of abject futility. Take last year, for example: The Orioles start out hot and own first place in the division for nearly half the season. A few injuries and a steroid suspension later, my long, flowing blond hair was reduced to what you see in this picture as the team looked like the people highlighted in the first few episodes of a season of “American Idol” — minus the talent. I mean, how do you put a rookie reliever up against Manny Ramirez with runners in scoring position ...

But I digress.

This is the time for optimism. I scan the roster and think if a couple of the young pitchers break through, and some of the older guys can catch a little lightning, and the new pitching coach does all he’s rumored to be able to do, and the weaker hitters learn to at least advance runners with groundouts, and Saturn lines up with Venus, and Tupac Shakur comes out of his grave to perform a stirring rendition of “Thugs Get Lonely Too” at the opening ceremonies and the New York Yankees get suspended as a team for violating antitrust laws ... hey, we could win as many as we lose this year.

That’s optimism for you.

But this is not a time to get into all that. Nor is it the time to worry about bills, or dry cleaning or that strange smell coming from the garbage disposal — especially if you take a second to realize you don’t have a garbage disposal in the first place. This is not when you worry, fret or stress about things in or out of your immediate control.

No, this is a three-day period of sports paradise — of scattered pizza boxes and robes covered in canned-cheese residue. A time to escape from the everyday doldrums of life, and journey into an incubator of Billy Packer, Dick Vitale and the crack of a ball against a wooden bat. It is a time of anxiety, of hope and of beer commercials featuring extremely well-endowed women.

In short, this is my time.