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Dark clouds spoil the sunshine

The Duke is dead and I’m not feeling too good either.
The weather outside certainly is worthy of being classified as a “Welcome to Screven County Chamber of Commerce Day.” With the conclusion of February and the start of March, people are tossing out a picnic basket worth of reasons why they need to be enjoying the 80-degree days instead of being ball-and-chained to their office desks.
As the birds chirp, prep student-athletes smash tennis balls, boot soccer balls, blast baseballs, and fly around the track oval.
Ah, the pleasures of spring. Thank you for your early spring prognostication Mr. Groundhog.
While we in Georgia relish in these days of climate celebration, the Atlanta Braves work out their kinks down in Florida in spring training. For this campaign, Fredi Gonzalez succeeds the retired icon Bobby Cox as manager. The Bravos usher in the new faces of first baseman Freddie Freeman and big bopper second baseman Dan Uggla, while elder statesman Chipper Jones returns from ACL surgery.
With Atlanta’s starting pitching and an arsenal of electrifying arms in the pen, the outlook for the Braves beams with optimism.
All that happiness should entice me to hum a few bars of the mid-1980s peppy classic “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina & The Waves, but it doesn’t.
The Braves were 5-4 losers to the New York Mets at their spring training home in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., Sunday. Across the country in Glendale, Ariz., the Los Angeles Dodgers also took a loss Sunday, but not on the baseball diamond.
The Dodgers defeated the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim 5-0 Feb. 27, but lost a great Dodger from the club’s days back in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Duke Snider, who played a solid center in Ebberts Field and was exalted in the golden era song “Talkin’ Baseball,” died Sunday. Snider was 84.
The Hall of Famer, known as the “Duke of Flatbush,” hit .295 with 407 career home runs. He played in six World Series with his team winning two of them.
However, Snider was more than a package of statistics – he was a part of “Dem Bums.” Dodger greats like Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella and Gil Hodges played in Ebbets Field in 1955, during that championship season, but it was Snider’s surname that refrains in “Talkin’ Baseball,” a song making its 30th anniversary this year.
Although I have never been a Dodgers fan, Snider does have a place in my home.
In 1992 as a student at Georgia Southern University, I, and others, helped a sports memorabilia collector organize his display of sports treasures on campus for public viewing.
The collector was very nice, but we would not know how nice until later. While most would give you a hearty “thank you” and intense handshake when you help them, this gentleman provided gifts – real nice ones.
One of my friends received a golf ball autographed by Jack Nicklaus. It was a baseball signed by Ozzie Smith for another.
My gift was an autographed Snider plaque. Being a collector, our very appreciative visitor also gave us the letters of authenticity to verify these signatures were the real McCoys.
Over the years, I’ve kept the plaque. At my last house, it prominently hung in my family’s hallway. At my current residence, it adorns our living room.
Snider, you see, was a throwback to when baseball was a game. Born Edwin Donald Snider, he got his nickname at an early age. Noticing his son return home from a game with a strut, Snider’s dad said, “Here comes the Duke.”
The name stuck.
He hit at least 40 homers in five consecutive seasons and led the National League in total bases three times. Snider remains the Dodgers’ franchise leader in home runs (389) and RBIs (1,271). He led all major leaguers in the 1950s with 326 homers and 1,031 RBIs.
It saddened Don Zimmer, one of Snider’s ex-teammates, that another Dodger was gone.
“They’re all passing away. There’s not many left,” said Zimmer, a former infielder, manager and coach.
Zimmer is right. And his comment, unfortunately, goes beyond just the Dodgers franchise. Those who respect the game also seem to be fleeting.
As if it were a reoccurring virus that won’t go away, the sickness of the steroid saga will rear two of its ugly heads soon as their chronicles creep into the baseball season.
Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, the biggest of big baseball stars mired in the steroid controversy, will face juries on opposite sides of the nation.
Bonds – he of the career mark in home runs at 762 – is scheduled for trial in U.S. District Court in San Francisco beginning March 21 on four counts of making false statements to a grand jury and one count of obstruction of justice.
Clemens – he of 4,672 fanned batters in his career – is set to be judged in federal court in Washington, D.C., starting July 6 on three counts of making false statements, two counts of perjury and one count of obstruction of Congress.
Already a gloomy drug cloud hangs over Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro, as neither has come close to induction into the Hall of Fame. As for Bonds and Clemens, both are eligible for the Hall of Fame ballot in 2013.
I already can feel my stomach churning. That dark cloud has the potential to cast a barrier between all of us and the springtime sun.
Duke, my hopes are that you found the former corn field in Iowa to play one more time on the “Field of Dreams” with the likes of  Pee Wee and Campy. That would be a recapturing of baseball purity at its finest.
Oh, how we long for that.

Enoch Autry is the publisher-editor of the Sylvania Telephone.