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It’s February in the Northeast section of the country, and it’s cold. Surprise! But this isn’t the usual cold. It’s real cold. Freezing cold. Below freezing cold. Way below freezing cold. Wind chills below zero cold. Did I mention that it was cold?

Not only is it cold, but it’s also dark most of the time. The days are relatively short. It gets dark early, and it stays dark in the morning hours. Cold and dark. That is what the “winter doldrums” are all about.

We are in mid-winter, which began just before Christmas and won’t officially end until March 21st. So batten down the hatches, fire up the furnace, keep the long johns at the ready. We still technically have another five to six weeks more of this stuff, folks.

About a month ago I returned to a work schedule which has me on a steady “Last Out” shift with the Philadelphia Police Department. This means that I work from approximately 11pm until 7am each day. This schedule puts me in the large, but still minority, group of folks who are actually out and about to see the worst of the doldrums period.

While those of you “normal” people are home tucked snug under the blankets, cuddled up with that special someone, snoring away, dreaming sweet dreams, we are out on the streets. There is nothing that points out that it is mid-winter so much as being on the streets of a big city at 3am on a mid-week night in early February when the wind chills are below zero.

So what do we have to keep us entertained, to keep our minds and our lives focused on something other than just how cold and dark it is at this time of year? Let’s take a look at some of the many events that get us through this time of year, when Christmas is far back in the rear view mirror and Easter is not even on the horizon.

There are a couple of great “holidays” to look forward to at this time of year. First there is Valentine’s Day, that day of love and affection, when we remember all those that we care about and remind them in some special way, be it dinner, flowers, candy, jewelry, cards or some combination of those. Valentine’s Day, especially with your sweetheart. Very warm indeed.

Then we have St. Patrick’s Day, the one day of the year when the rest of you wannabes can put on your green clothing, and go out to get sloshed with a purpose. What could be warmer than hoisting a few with your best buddies at the local Irish taproom, a green plastic bowler on your head, shamrock stickers on both cheeks, and green beads hanging around your neck?

For those of you with a social conscience, there is Martin Luther King Day, when we take some time in service to others in remembrance of the slain civil rights leader. For you history buffs, there is President’s Day, when we honor our past U.S. Presidents, specifically “The Father of Our Country”, George Washington, and “The Great Emancipator”, “Honest” Abe Lincoln.

For you political junkies, there is the State of the Union address, given to Congress each year by the President as a highlight of where we are and where we are going as a nation. This year we have the added attraction of a new candidate emerging weekly in the battle for the 2008 Presidential race. This week it was Rudy Giuliani on the Republican side, after Joe Biden jumped in last week on the Dems’ side.

For you sports fans, there is a smorgasbord of selections. If the middle of the all-too-lengthy NHL and NBA seasons aren’t good enough, if the Australian Open of tennis or the U.S. figure skating championships don’t excite you, you always have three of the biggest sports events of the year to entertain you at this time of year.

First there is the greatest single sporting event of the year, the Super Bowl, just completed this past weekend. Congratulations to Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts on finally winning “the big one” after many frustrating attempts, and to the Chicago Bears on an outstanding season. Indianapolis won, 29-17, on a rainy evening in Miami.

This year the “Can Manning win the big one?” melodrama was pushed to the side, thanks to the achievement of not one, but two black head coaches in the game for the first time: Tony Dungy of Indy and Lovie Smith of Chicago. These two men finally, definitively proved once and for all what has realistically been known for a long time. Guiding a team to the top is not about race, sex, religion or anything other than leadership ability. Period.

But the big “winter doldrums” sports rush doesn’t end there. Just around the corner we have “March Madness”, the NCAA college hoops tournament where Goliath usually reigns supreme, but where the many invited Cinderella’s usually give them a good scare. Here in Philly, it is always exciting when a few of the local Big Five teams get invited to the dance, and this year should see a couple locals involved once again.

The most anticipated sports event of the winter doldrums period is coming up within the next couple of weeks, when we hear those wonderful words “pitchers and catchers report”. Is there any more of a harbinger of spring, that the winter doldrums surely will be ending soon, than when your local nine begins showing up on the TV doing the Spring Training thing down in Florida (or for some, out in Arizona)?

The return of baseball to our collective consciousness after a fall and winter of hibernation is the truest sign that the days will indeed be getting warmer and longer shortly, the grass will again begin to grow, and we can take off those overcoats and ski caps and mittens. When what hangs in the air is not the breath from our mouths, but instead the immortal words officially ending the winter doldrums: “Play Ball!”