A Sporting Chance: The Dog Days of Summer

Not a breath of air disturbs the leaves on my Zsu-Zsu's favorite tree, the flowering dogwood she planted a few years ago. "A little tree for a little house," she'd grinned at the time. The oppressive heat of a Midwest August doesn't seem to bother it. In fact, it appears to thrive when the mercury tickles 100 degrees and the humidity makes being outside a test for the strongest stay-dry antiperspirant.

We placed a flower cushioned patio swing next to her little tree so we could spend summer weekend evenings rocking back and forth, inhaling the sweet smell of the Midwestern wildflowers mixed with her own cultivated roses and the mixture of marigolds, pansies, and begonias she carefully tends after the sun goes down and physical activity becomes less onerous.

That magical hour after the sun sets, she'll leave the swing and lovingly weed, spray, and water her charges while I change the channel on our ancient, 1980's style boom box to the game. Later, nearly dark, the fireflies come out and say hello and long about the 7th inning, we trudge back into our air conditioned cocoon for some ice cream or cold fruit. And if I've been a very good boy, I get both.

These are the dog days of summer, the period 20 days before and 20 days after the dog star Sirius and the sun are in conjunction, according to the ancients. That may be. But here in the Midwest, we've always seen the dog days as a time that only a dog could love. Life draining, oppressive heat, sauna-like humidity and the phenomena of the late afternoon thunderstorm that appears regularly, coming out of nowhere and disappears almost as quickly, leaving behind those jaw dropping, horizon to horizon rainbows that appear so close at times that you can almost hear the laughing Leprechaun guarding his pot of gold.

In the world of sports, the dog days mean toiling away, pushing oneself physically to perform even while common sense and the thermometer tell you to sit back and take it easy. For professional baseball players, it is the period after the All Star game and before the pennant races heat up in September when going out day after day in the heat and humidity takes not only a physical toll but makes the player pay a psychic cost as well. The mental stress, the little aches and pains all players experience during the course of a season that challenge their physical stamina, and the inexorable grind of a 162 game schedule all combine to make the dog days a test of professionalism and character.

Then there are the behemoths of the gridiron, grunting and sweating in similar heat and humidity at NFL training camps, being put through their paces by pitiless coaches who are seeking just the right combinations of players to bring them to the nirvana of the playoffs. Nearly 100 players are in most NFL training camps vying for 45 roster spots. Tempers flare regularly as the pressure to perform well at exactly the time that the head coach's eyes are turned your way as well as the relentless heat and spirited competition cause some players to butt heads like snorting bulls, tearing at each other in frustration and desperation, hoping to keep the dream alive for a few more days.

On the sedate but pressure packed fairways and greens of the golf course, the final major event of the season is set to unfold at Southern Hills in Tulsa, Oklahoma as the PGA Championship is set for this weekend. Here, the finest golfers in the world will experience for themselves the true meaning of the dog days. Temps are expected to climb into the low 100's. Hydration will be vital for both players and fans in the dangerous heat and some golfers will probably bring a couple of spare shirts, changing on the fly in the middle of their rounds as each successive garment gets weighed down with sweat making swinging the golf club - already a difficult task - that much harder.

I can recall my days in St. Louis going to Cardinals games this time of year and watching the players on the artificial surface at old Bush Stadium bouncing around uncomfortably on a field that would achieve temperatures of close to 140 degrees. The heat wafting up from the ground was incredible. Between innings, players would wrap ice cold towels around their heads while some would even immerse their fully cleated feet into pails of ice water. In weather like that, pitchers wilt after 5 or 6 innings, and playing the game becomes a test of manhood and endurance.

A similar test is administered to the gigantasaurs who are working out at NFL training facilities across the country. But it's not like the old days - not by a long shot. After a couple of high profile deaths of NFL and college athletes at training camp, much stricter rules about hydration and physical exertion have been put in place. Gone are the days when NFL coaches would have 3-a-days in the brutal heat, pushing the players to their maximum physical limits, to the point that many would collapse due to heat exhaustion, or their bodies would rebel and vomit up anything in their stomachs. Camp is still extremely tough but much more care is taken to make sure that tragedy is avoided.

My Beloved Bears used to work out at tiny St. Josephs College in Rensselaer, Indiana in the old days, which is about as far away from fun and nightlife that one can get and still be on planet earth. The players hated it. They were locked up in dorms every night and allowed out only one weekend night to get into trouble. By the time they broke camp, they were ready to eat nails and spit thunder.

Alas, those days are gone. My Beloveds now have training camp at the much more populated but still secluded Olivet Nazarene College in Bourbonnais, Illinois. The atmosphere, according to the old timers, is much more relaxed and even fan friendly. In the old days, players needed training camp to round into shape. NFL players these days stay in shape year round and training camp is just one more opportunity - following several off season mini-camps - to work on making the offense and defense play together as a unit.

There is a hint of a breeze now that the sun is going down. It is still warm and humid but the night air is beginning to cool as the bright orange orb moves below the horizon. Soon - too soon - August will give way to September and the excitement of the pennant races in baseball as well as the start of the college and NFL football seasons that will dominate the sporting landscape in America. The dog days will be forgotten as the weather changes and the leaves begin to turn.

And along about February, when everyone is heartily sick of the cold, the snow, and the biting wind, many of us will fondly recall the dog days of summer, wishing for a small taste of the misery we're all complaining about today.

Rick Moran blogs at Right Wing Nut House