That's the true harbinger of spring, not crocuses or swallows returning to Capistrano, but the sound of a bat on the ball.

--Bill Veeck, 1976


One can get spoiled by days like this: a quick swim, pick up coffee and newspapers from the 7-11, a drive to the ball park, cheapest ticket, best seat, and l-u-x-u-r-i-a-t-e in baseball.

It's not yet 11 a.m.

In Fort Myers, you watch Ted Williams ride around in his golf cart, talking to anyone who will listen. In Lakeland Damon Easley and Delvi Cruz turn double plays on a field adjacent to the parking lot, as close as a little league game. Reggie Jackson is somewhere. Mark McGwire is taking batting practice in Jupiter; after a series of thunder bolts over the left field fence, it may be more accurate to say that Jupiter is taking BP inside Mark McGwire.

It is noon.

If life begins on opening day, then spring training is pre-life, full of wonder and anticipation, happy myths careening with scientific realities, when a veteran can be gone by sunset and the youngster who steps into his cleats will dream of nothing less than running full tilt to immortality. At the minor league camps, thousands of kids work as hard as Pete Rose ever did, and will not make it out of A-ball.

At 1 P.M, you are confronted with a tough choice: stay and watch this game, or dart off to catch the opening pitch of another game in the next town. It's suddenly the third inning of a scoreless game and the sun feels good and your body mimics the bullpen pitchers', lanquid and tranquil, and you're not moving. Too much work. Somehow, the grass is greener, the air is cleaner, and the opposite sex sexier. (Mrs. Mike Timlin has just gone for a snack and you realize who the real closer is in that family.)

I have missed only two of the last 16 spring trainings, the strike season and when my twin sons were graduating high school and March Madness meant something entirely different (and not basketball!). Without them, Florida was too lonely a proposition. It had been an annual pilgrimage since they were six, when we mended familial fences and bonded winter cracks. My wife, an avid non-fan, was simply happy to see her children happy. We toured America without leaving Florida. We toured Florida without leaving baseball. A Texas practice session was followed by a Cleveland-New York tilt in the afternoon was topped off by a Baltimore-Atlanta game at night. The kids slept well. They dreamt of the line drive Pete Incaviglia smashed clear through the wooden fence in Pompano or the bag of popcorn Gary Gaetti bobbled at a local movie theatre or the first time they laid eyes on a skinny kid taking batting practice in dungarees and a fancy dress shirt; when Eric Davis was sent to minors, my sons waited for him to re-emerge as they might a next of kin. His battle with cancer three year's ago coincided with the latest addition to our household, a female cat, yclept E.D. (Our dogs are named Moseby and "Lulu" Bell. Maybe we saw the too many Blue Jays games when kids were impressionable.)

Dunedin-Clearwater-Tampa-St. Pete was our favorite quartet of cities. We'd rent an apartment in Tarpon Springs or Indian Rocks Beach and take day trips: a half dozen teams were within an hour's drive, another half dozen within two. Inter-league play is old hat for snowbirds. A decade ago, sell-outs were rare and traffic manageable. Things have changed. A little planning goes a long way. People like to see winners, so avoid last year's champs: success breeds fans, and fans breed traffic and long queues and price increases and ticket shortages. The Twins v. Pirates in Bradenton in mid-week...ahhhhh...better than a couple hits of St. John's wort. When the kids hit their teens, their mother dropped out of the spring sojourn and we became vagabonds, going from town to town, wherever the games looked good. We never made a reservation. Sometimes we ended up in sunny squalor, sometimes in posh digs; motels, unlike the breaks, tend to even out in the long run. Decent rooms range from $50 to $150. For folks who like to plan, the Florida Sport Commission has the spring schedule in late January. Call 850-488-8347 or download fla.sports.com. You can buy all your tickets before leaving home by calling each stadium and/or Ticketron. The first week of spring training is the easiest in every way, since the weather is uncertain and more minor leaguers are playing and mainly locals venture in.

A word or three about Arizona: never been there. People tell me it's nice. Hot and dry. Arizona has 10 teams. Florida has 20. Next case.

Although the state has been divided into four separate spring training treks, mix and match to your heart's delight. Since Orlando is the northern-most, and central-most site, and because Disney now dominates Florida the way Babe Ruth dominates the Hall of Fame, we start there...

Rockerville
Atlanta Braves

Lodging: Good luck in Orlando. Kissimmee is close by and cheaper.

Restaurants: Le Cog au Vin has nouvelle food at old fashioned prices. B's Bar-B-Q is down and dirty and delicious.

Beware!: Sellouts! All games are sellouts.

Avoid: This Disney creation.

Not only were the Braves' spring games sold out, so too were the daily workouts before the exhibition season began, for $8 a pop, which is $8 more than every other place in the unDisney world. The actual games are the highest priced in Florida, $9.50 to $15.50.

If you get in, past two security points, you enter an attractive stadium that feels like a classy Mexican restaurant, with Caribbean colors and a huge scoreboard in centerfield. The grass beyond the left field fence is for picnickers and sprawlers, a nice touch borrowed from DodgerTown, the best complex in Flordia. The concessions stands are extensive and expensive: $3 for peanuts or bottled water.

When the anthem ends, music blares until the first pitch, then between pitches, between batters, between innings--incessant music, assaultive and unrelated to the game. The place makes you nervous. Too many diversions. Plugs for an upcoming tennis tournament, a 3-on-3 football contest, car races at the Walt Disney speedway, the new Disney movie, and the old Disney amusement park. Glitz and tricks. You are caught in the crosswinds of cross-promotion. Someone has failed to grasp the basic tenets of spring training: to soak in the game as naturally as you soak in the sun, gently, quietly, unanimatedly.

The kids will find a way to amuse themselves--hunt for autographs, for foul balls, for little kids of the opposite sex. They might want to talk to someone, like a father, or actually sit still and watch Andres Galaragga mash a baseball. Or visit the bullpen to hear the surprising pop of a Greg Maddux fast ball or feed peanuts to John Rocker. (Sorry: the Braves bullpen is behind the right field wall, out of sight, out of bounds. Fan-friendly this is not.)

Middle America
Houston Astros, Cleveland Indians
Kansas City Royals, Detroit Tigers

Restaurants Tarantino's in Kissimmee, Mario's in Lakeland

Avoid Sonny's Bar-b-que everywhere

Lodging Kissimmee is easiest, Lakeland a distant second, Winter Haven third.

Special Notes: 1) Florida Southern College plays nights games at Henley Field in Lakeland, former home of the Tigers. F.S.C. has sent 94 players to the pros. 2) Batter's Box batting cage on Rte. 542 in Winter Haven.

Chief Osceola was invited to negotiate with the U.S. government. When he arrived, he was jailed and never let out. The Houston Astros might feel like that about Osceola County Stadium. The ball park is open, airy, funky, and half full on good days. Kissimmee has no special appeal and the Astros no natural constituency, being too far from and having the same weather as Houston. You will not be seeing busloads of Texans venturing this way, as Canadians gravitate to Dunedin.

Just outside the stadium is a separate box office that sells tickets to every spring training game in the state. No place else offers such a convenience. Beyond the parking lot is another story all together--convenience run amuck. On a one mile stretch along the main drag, Route 192, there are19 fast food chains, five motels, four gas stations, a carwash, a muffler repair, various T-shirt stores, a hairdresser, a church and a billboard advertising a rodeo that passed through town two weeks ago.

The actual village of Kissimmee--pronounced "kiss-emmy," like a mother urging her son to show some affection to a geeky girl cousin--is tiny and quaint and the home of Tarantino's. It is a modest place, but you cannot overestimate the comfort of Italian comfort food in the middle of Kissimmee.

Or the smell of cinnamon in Winter Haven, home of the Cleveland Indians. Within the semi-circle of concession stands behind home plate, there's a guy who sprays large warm pretzels with a water mist, and dips them into salt, parmesan cheese or cinammon. Watching Omar Vizquel practice bare-handed grounders at short while listening to organ music and munching on cinnamon pretzels...is it March yet? (Vizquel is Venezuelan; the pretzels are Pennsylvania Dutch, made by Auntie Anne.)

Winter Haven is as sleepy as Chain O'Lakes Stadium is stirring. The Ohio license plates that fill the parking lot tell you this is serious baseball country, not a tourist attraction. Indian fans are loyal, and happy, with five division pennants hanging on the outfield fence and space for more. Right field bleachers have been added and left field extended in recent years, and boxes where photographers once sat are now sold as VIP seats for $15. Prices are escalating. Someone has to pay for all this happiness.

The good seats are close enough to hear a pitcher curse himself when his 3-2 pitch misses. Dennis Springer, the knuckleballer, has just committed such a sin (the ball four, not the profanity). The next batter hits a ball to the warning track in right field, just about the spot where Dennis Springer will be running during the next inning. It is the fifth inning and he is finished for the day. You get used to seeing players darting across the outfield, solo or in tandem, in mid-game. It's a sign of spring.

The Kansas City Royals have been hard to find for a long time now. Newspapers list them in Baseball City, or Haines City, or Lake Hamilton. The stadium is actually in Davenport, right off highway 4. Everything paintable in the stadium is royal blue. Even the vendors, in yellow shirts, wear royal blue hats, and among the last people on earth to really shout, "Popcorn, peanuts, Crackerjacks!" The food is better than anything in the area and the vendors are volunteers who contribute a percentage of what they sell to elementary schools in run-down Davenport. Manga, manga!

There is no upper deck here, no video screen, no super sound system. Billboards advertise Nebb's Goat Milk Fudge and YTONG Autoclaved Aerated Concrete. George Brett is still at first base, coaching. His skin is more weathered, his hair less blonde, but the handsome sumbitch still looks like he was born in that Royals uniform. You'd like to see him take a few swings. He will not. Tampa's Bubba Trammell will, and he ropes a line-drive to right, and Quentin McCracken rounds third base, and Rod Myers comes up throwing--a strike to home plate--McCracken is meat! You are so close to the action that you can hear the footsteps and the ball hit the mitt and McCracken's legs collide with the catcher's plastic shin pads and Durwood Merrill's "out" call. You have better seats than the players. Better than your own living room. Seeing baseball on the tube is as close to the real thing as a hot dog is to a cow.

A slow but steady stream of fans ask a gentleman in the fourth row for his autograph. He is wearing a red and white Kansas City Monarchs cap, a Royals warm-up jacket, and sunglasses. Buck O'Neill, Hall of Famer, signs and signs and remains polite and unperturbed, even as he follows every pitch with great intensity, encouraging batters, fearing the shortstop is playing too deep. Watching Buck O'Neill, 88, is worth the trip to Florida.

So is Joker Marchard Stadium. The Tigers have trained in Lakeland for over half a century--35 years at the Joker and 32 years before that at Henley Field. When a team is this stable for this long, fans from back home can buy condos and time-shares and make long-term plans. Modernity, however, has crept even into this sleepy town: a "comfort" tower has just been built in right field, atop the players' locker room, where businesses pay $2,600--or $100 per person--for food and drink and the worst seats in the house. Every other seat is better. Not heated, not air-conditioned, just better.

And you can listen to some Ellington standards played by the Dick Allen Trio--not that Dick Allen--as you enter the stadium portico. There is a pavillion that sells tuna platters and turkey sandwiches and real potato salad, all hand-made. Of course, there is a large Little Ceasar Pizza stand, since it's owner also owns the Tigers. (A few years ago, the same large stand was dispensing Domino's Pizza, since it's owner then owned the Tigers. People make a lot of money selling pizzas. Pizzas and cars. Marge Schott's husband sold cars. And Bud Selig sold cars. And Roger Dean, too. You'll meet him soon enough.)

Space Coast
Florida Marlins, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets
St. Louis Cardinals, Montreal Expos

Lodging Vero Beach is best, especially the non-chain motels

Restaurants Pearl's Bistro in Vero Beach (Floribbean food) and Norris's Chicken'n'Ribs in Port St. Lucie

Avoid Daytona in early March--motorcycle week attracts 200,000 bikers

Special Note A game every day in Jupiter

On the Treasure Coast, with its world class fishing and free range society dames, the beaches are white, the money green, and one stadium is teal. Marlins--players not fish--are tossing thin packets of baseball cards into the stands; not sailing the cards, like frisbees, but throwing them like overhand atonements from the outfield. Other Marlins are signing their names on anything that will hold ink; the front office hopes that giving away autographs will erase the memory of giving away players.

In the Marlins Shop in Space Coast Stadium, nice ladies are trying to sell Marlin Videos and Marlin Cookbooks and even Marlin Dirt. The Dirt is from the World Series victory. It is not moving. Who wants to pay for dirt while it is being kicked in your face?

Scouts and wives and prospects sit right behind home plate, behind the protective netting, so they can take notes and read their radar guns and chit chat without fear of flying objects. This is a good section to sneak into if you are stuck with bad seats. After the sixth inning, most stadia don't care. It is more fun to wriggle in during the second inning. You can go the extra mile and bring a clipboard and a checkered shirt and pretend to be a scout, but that's going overboard.

Where right field has a double-decker billboard with 28 colorful advertisements, the scoreboard in center is fairly impossible to read in the sunlight, especially since little yellow lights indicate strikes and little green lights signify balls. This is a very colorful place. Even the food is colorful. They sell something called "chicken cordon bleu" for $3.50. The cheese appears more teal than bleu.

Twenty minutes east of Melbourne, past the malls and schools, is the Atlantic Ocean and Vero Beach, where the Dodgers moved after WWII. What was a defunct naval base is now 450 acres of Dodger Town, with four diamonds, a residential development, a citrus grove, a few restaurants, two golf courses, and 200 year-round employees. It is the most idyllic of all spring sites. Call it Walt Alston World. Instead of Mickey Mouse greeting you, there's Mickey Hatcher, Dodger coach, doing some goofy little dance. Tommy Lasorda likes to conduct a local high school band playing the Star Spangled Banner. Outfielders drive by on bicycles. Sandy Koufax is hanging out. Down the hill, the Dodger AA is playing the Nicaraguan Nationals, with hitting coach Rico Carty, and pitching coach Luis Tiant. This is a baseball fairyland.

And when the main game is sold out, usually on Sundays--there are never Saturday home games--the hill beyond the low left field fence is opened to fans for $5. You feel embraced, not feared, at Dodger Town. One does not feel welcomed at Thomas White Stadium, home of the New York Mets.

Ominous signs are everywhere:

ST. LUCIE COUNTY SPORTS COMPLEX RULES
NO FOOD OR DRINK NO COOLERS GLASS THERMOSES NO BICYCLES SKATEBOARDS NO WEAPONS FIREARMS NO HORNS WHISTLES FIREWORKS NO PETS EXCEPT GUIDEDOGS do not leave children unattended profanity or intoxication will not be tolerated

My wife does not carry a whistle or a pistol, but usually totes a family-size bag of peanuts to games. Peanuts and freshly-squeezed orange juice from a roadside stand. In Florida, orange juice is cheaper than Coca Cola, cheaper than most bottled waters, and the difference between fresh orange juice and reconstituted is the difference between sushi-quality tuna and a can of Star-Kist. Sorry, Charlie.

Sorry too for baseball fans who enter Thomas White Stadium. The distance between the diamond and the box seats is ludicrous. Spectators are kept at an excruciating distance from the players, like paparazzi cordoned off from a celebrity wedding. Paranoia designed this place. Even saintly Cal Ripken, of the visiting Orioles, waiting his turn near the batting cage, suddenly loses his mind and starts mocking his adoring young fans by cackling "Cal! Cal! Cal!" like some deranged seagull. "Cal! Cal! Cal!" And Mike Bordick, presently in the batting cage, picks up the derisive chant, and yells "Cal!" every time he swings the bat. "Cal!" As if whacking open the head of another fan. "Cal! Cal! Cal!" This place is scary. "Slider," the big fake dog with double zero on his back, is the first mascot of spring. He is supposed to lighten your spirits. He is depressing. You could swear the list of stadium prohibitions included pets.

Down the highway, in Jupiter, Roger Dean Stadium is state of the art. Comfortable seats have cup holders, like a movie multiplex, and right field has a large and lovely pavilion, raised slightly, providing a great place to eat or picnic or just watch the game in shade. The bullpen is so close to the fans that it encourages Cardinal relievers to lean back and get some tips on how to pitch (or spell) Mark Gruzdielanek. There are 13 practice fields beyond center. Forest green is the dominant color, complemented by the two-story canary yellow office building beyond right field that makes you reminds you of Camden Yards. (Same design firm.)

Roger Dean moved to Palm Beach from Ohio in l961, opened Roger Dean Chevrolet and never looked back. Never looked at a baseball game either. Who can relax a couple hours when you're running 65 different dealerships? Now, in his 80's, Roger Dean owns 25 dealerships in Florida, as well as 50 other businesses.

Park Miller always calls his father-in-law Mr. Dean. "Mr. Dean has employed thousands of people and helped thousands more over the years. He is humble to a fault, never wanting recognition for his good deeds. He has been a true philanthropist, always seeking anonymity."

So Park Miller got a million bucks from family and friends and bought 15 years worth of Roger Dean's name on the stadium and street signs and vendors' caps and ushers' shirts and parking stubs and just about everywhere you look in the Roger Dean Stadium except the men's room, where the name of a local exterminator proudly hangs above each urinal, taking credit for the absence of bugs in the fixture into which you are micturating.

The Cards play the Expos today. This happens a lot. They share Roger Dean Stadium--two teams, from two countries, both lured from other sites. While both teams play 16 home games here, they face but seven different opponents. The Royals, for example, see 12 different opponents during the same span. If someone went to every Cards and Expos home game, one would still see only nine other teams. Still, sharing a stadium may be the wave of the future, since communities are reluctant to pony up the big bucks for a single team, having seen so many abandon their new homes after brief periods.

The Orioles have been trying to abandon Ft. Lauderdale since they moved there. The old ball park is nice, but the site is too small to accommodate the minor leaguers, stuck in Sarasota, serving neither management nor fans. The O's are trying to work a deal in Palm Beach. If you haven't noticed, very few of the Orioles' plans have taken wing of late.

My Favorite Quartet
Philadelphia Phillies, Toronto Blue Jays
New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Devil Rays

Lodging Clearwater is loaded on Rte. 19. Dunedin has waterside motels. Tampa & St. Pete are real cities with real varieties.

Restaurants Sabal's in Dunedin, Lenny's in Clearwater.

Avoid Legends Field

Special Note Carpenter Complex, the Phillies' open & accessible minor league site.

The Phillies play at Jack Russell, a terrier of a stadium. Lean, scrappy, and indestructible, it's main charm is it's decided lack of charm. The parking lot turns to mud with morning dew. It's in the middle of a ghetto. It's new additions, bleachers left and right, don't match the rest of the seats. Still, it is one of the liveliest parks in Florida. People hawk broken bats, used balls, and memorabilia only a Phillies fan could love. Re-entry is gained by showing the red P stamped on your hand. But this is Florida and the skin sweats and logos run and you can smear anything red on your hand and walk right in.

(Urgent note: While this organization does not endorse anti-social behavior, if you have driven for hours and the kids are crying and the game is sold out and...wait a minute...last March, there were two sell-outs in the 15-game schedule, and the average attendance was closer to 4,000 than capacity 7,000, so you need a better excuse than that.)

If spring training were in Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart's place would be called Lenny's not Rick's, and the letters of transit would surely be there. Everything else is. You can buy or sell tickets, find rides, swap rental information, eat alligators. The alligator omelet is $6.50 and said to be delicious, if you like chicken.

The Blue Jays are just up the road in Dunedin. They are owned by Labatt's. Labatt's is owned by Interbrew, a Belguim brewing co. There is no fuss made when a team is bought by a Canadian or Australian or Microsoftian, but let a Japanese buyer step into the picture, and all hell is raised. (A free case of beer to anyone who can name the best Belgian player ever. Bert Blyleven was Dutch.)

From the early innings, the men's room at Grant Field is full. I am standing next to a fellow who says, "I'm pissing enough to fill Lake Ontario, ay?" Canadians are a friendly lot. The more they drink, the friendlier they get. Not rowdy, friendly. Canadians drink a lot of beer. Regardless of alcoholic intake, they are the quietest crowd in Florida. Everything is quite civilized at Grant Field. You park at the elementary school around the corner, you buy your beer, you take your seat, you make nasty comments about Raul Mondesi. Politely.

When the game is over, you can stay to watch batting practice. A few seasons ago, hitting coach Willie Upshaw taught young Shawn Green how to hit to the opposite field. They spent 45 minutes in the cage. I spent that summer surprising the rightfielders in my softball league. The village of Dunedin is an old Scotch settlement filled with antique shops and cafes. Caledesi Island State Park, where dolphins regularly cavort in front of a spectacular beach and lush trails, is reachable only by ferry from Dunedin or Clearwater. That's what the guide books say. I have never actually been to Caldesi.

Nor have I ever been to Legends Field in Tampa. Nor were any legends built in that new ballpark. Only a jumbotronicvideoscreen and l0,000 seats. Too many seats. And always filled. With Yankee fans. I live in the Bronx, ten minutes from Yankee Stadium, and I can see the Yankees all summer long. Spring training is not a condensed southern-fried version of summer. It's a cheater's trip around America: it's picking apart Albert Belle's psyche with Marylanders and debating the merits of the U. of Michigan with Tiger fans; it's interacting with young heliophiles and the retirees afraid of the sun, with shit-kicking cowboys of Kissimmee and 20-carat creatures of Worth Avenue, with the yuppies of Naples and the migrant workers of Immokalee, with Seminoles on the reservation and at Florida State too; it's visiting Little Havana and Big Pine Key and the everglades--that weird river that runs 40 miles wide and only 6 inches deep. Like the modern strike zone.

I have nothing against the Yankees. They are an exciting multi-national corporation. I don't fancy George Steinbrenner, or the fact that he shares a nickname with Bruce Springsteen. And I don't like that a meddling felon is starting to look benign compared to the big business bozos who are intent on screwing around with the game. At least George knows that "ducks on the pond" doesn't refer to Huey, Dewey and Louie. (Though this knowledge would never stop him from hiring and firing Yosemite Sam four or five times.)

In Tampa, instead of going to a Yankee game, try Ybor City, a town settled l00 years ago by Cuban immigrants. It has exotic architecture, wonderful food and the liveliest bars on the West Coast after midnight. Sure it's a tourist attraction, but if you look hard, and it's 3 a.m., and the dark rum is working, you can see Babe Ruth stepping off the train, all stiff and sleepy, looking for a bar stool and a hand-rolled Cuban cigar.

Bedtime, Babe had to be driven to a secluded hotel in St. Petersburg, even as the rest of the team stayed at the Don CeSar. The Yankees saved the huge pink Mediterranean hotel from bankruptcy in early l930's when they rented 125 rooms for players and families, and ate every meal in the dining room. The Don CeSar, with its marble floors, crystal chandeliers and 7 acres of beach front, is still in operation and still a sight to behold. (If you are holding mucho deniro--not that Deniro.)

The Tampa Bay Devil Rays is the only team in professional sports not named for a city, state, or country. Tampa Bay is a body of water and/or the six-county area surrounding that body of water. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays is also the only major franchise needing four words to explain itself, and eight words to explain its home--"Florida Power Park, Home of Al Lang Stadium." It is an unwieldy mouthful of a moniker brought about by forcing new and old money to merge on a single marquee. The Florida Power utility company paid an unrefusable $1.5 million for l0 years to get billing over the godfather of spring training.

In l914, Al Lang convinced the St. Louis Browns to train in St., Petersburg. The first game against the Cubs drew 4,000 people. Al Lang enticed another team and then another and more teams have played in St. Pete than any city on earth. Al Lang was voted Mayor twice. Now the power broker shares a ballpark's name with a power company. The stadium in question was inhabited for the last half century by the St. Louis Cardinals. Surreally, (the Salvador Dali Museum is nearby) it is impossible to stop seeing little red birds in the outfield and hearing the singing hot dog vendor break into basso profundo every few innings. It is a wonderful and cozy facility, overlooking Tampa Bay, the water, and you can sit in left field and watch sail boats tacking and tacky boats sailing.

Down Under
Pittsburg Pirates, Cincinnati Reds
Boston Red Sox, Minnesota Twins

Lodging Sarasota is best bet.

Restaurants First Watch in Sarasota. Prawnbroker in Ft. Myers.

Special Note Bradenton to Ft. Myers is far, very far.

Bradenton is the home of Tropicana Orange Juice and urban sprawl and the Pittsburgh Pirates. McKechnie Field has been smack dab in the middle of this working class community since l961. Although fixed up a few years back, McKechnie remains a lovable bandbox, splendidly rinky dink, and very democratic--the box seats are $8.50, the reserved seats 8. It's the least comfortable and most eccentric of all spring sites. You can still see a long foul ball bust the windshield of a passing car. Some high schools have larger facilities. There was only one sellout last spring, against Cleveland. You cannot picture the Indians calling this home, or the Braves, or even the Reds.

One may also have a tough time picturing the Reds in Sarasota. Ed Smith Stadium was built for a team of another hue, the White Sox. The stadium is strictly non-descript, lots of poured cement, allowing the clientele to make the fashion statements. The women of wealth wear summer dresses and matching shoes, while the men sport checkered slacks and pastel shirts. Families in boating outfits sit next to a group in Plain black clothes, from a nearby Amish community. You can't recall seeing a horse-and-buggy in the parking lot, but you can't forget the Range Rovers and the Hummers and that one small car unloading l,000 clowns--this is, after all, Ringling country: Ringling Causeway... Ringling Mansion... Ringling Museum.

When the Reds take the field dressed in green, you might think you've already drunk too much. It's only St. Patrick's Day. Some teams use green bases, some wear green hats, or green uniforms. It changes from year to year. What remains constant is the Texas Rangers' trouble with food and water in Port Charlotte; the food selection is sparse and the water too plentiful, particularly in swamps and wetlands surrounding the stadium. Ironic that this stadium should pay so little attention to nourishment, since the Babcock Ranch is so close. With 90,000 acres and 4,000 head of cattle, Babcock is the largest cattle operation east of the Mississippi. Speaking of beef, I have one: since senior citizens are so prominent throughout Florida, why can't ballparks deliver food and drink to the seats? Waiters and waitresses (volunteers and ushers) could take orders and earn tips, or, as in Yankee Stadium, or Paris bistros, add a 15 percent surcharge to the bill.

Since the Minnesota Twins produced a winner some time in the last century, things have turned upside down. Back home, they have one team for two cities; here, they have two teams in one city, sharing the area with the Red Sox. The people of Ft. Myers are fortunate for the double dip, but this is a good hour drive south of Port Charlotte, a schlep even for spring maniacs. Hammond Stadium is (and has) no great shakes; its most distinctive features occurring in the parking lot, at Rod Carew Drive and Harmon Killebrew Way and Kirby Puckett Place. (How bittersweet to see his jolly self at the ballpark, waving cheerfully when people call his name. His loss has taken more of a toll on this team than anyone knows.)

When calling the Red Sox at 941-334-4700, please dial carefully. Hundreds of people have been calling Sister Mary at the Benedictine Hospital in Kingston, New York. Seems that 941 has been transposed to 914 on the Internet and other "reliable" places; human intelligence has not yet ingested a three-digit area code without a 0 or 1 in the middle, like a numerical vowel. Sister Mary is gregarious, but she doesn't have all the time in the world to chat about Nomar Garciaparra (her favorite player). She's got a hospital to run.

Some of us, on the other hand, have lots of time to spend of the subject of Nomar Garciaparra. Typing his name is almost as much fun as saying it, and saying it almost as much fun as watching him. Has there ever been a player so nervous and so calm at the same time, so fidgety and so focused? Nomar plays at the City of Palms Park, built in l993. They did such a good job that most people think it is an updated old stadium. The right field terrace is open and grassy, and sightlines are excellent everywhere. There are no World Series flags unfurled anywhere in the stadium, although the topic is just a drink away at the Sheraton Harbor Place, where many a player and fan stay. With Pedro Martinez on board and the new millennium at hand, even fatalistic New Englanders, used to cold winters and long summers, dare to entertain the possibility of a, of a, well, you know, a new century.

To sum up, spring training is the absolutely ideal vacation. Lay on a beach? Too much sand. Scuba diving? Too much ocean. Climb a mountain? Too much mountain. This is just enough sun, just enough sea, and there's usually a batting cage nearby when one is sufficiently inspired or guilty. Whatever you or your kids do out-of-doors, you can do it in Florida.

Young people should see the practices, the drills, the repetition. They might understand that excellence doesn't just happen, that the best players in the world need preparation and discipline, tutors and boosters. When you walk around any complex, you will see grown men engaged in that endless game of catch and refining a simple slide and hitting ball after ball off a Little League tee. A tee!

In the end, I suspect, I need spring training even more than the players, who stay in shape all year round. It is my period of rejuvenation, the perfect blend of nostalgia and discovery, the bridge from yesterday to tomorrow: I leave the Bronx in winter and return in spring, ready for the thorns and the flowers, ready for opening day, when life begins again.






Bruce Buschel is a writer in New York

Copyright © 2000 by Bruce Buschel









We toured America without leaving Florida. We toured Florida without leaving baseball.


















































We became vagabonds, going from town to town, wherever the games looked good. We never made a reservation. Sometimes we ended up in sunny squalor, sometimes in posh digs; motels, unlike the breaks, tend to even out in the long run.
















The basic tenets of spring training: to soak in the game as naturally as you soak in the sun, gently, quietly, unanimatedly.





































































You get used to seeing players darting across the outfield, solo or in tandem, in mid-game. It's a sign of spring.


































You are so close to the action that you can hear the footsteps and the ball hit the mitt. You have better seats than the players. Better than your own living room.




































































In the Marlins Shop in Space Coast Stadium, nice ladies are trying to sell Marlin Videos and Marlin Cookbooks and even Marlin Dirt. The Dirt is from the World Series victory.
































You feel embraced, not feared, at Dodger Town. One does not feel welcomed at Thomas White Stadium, home of the New York Mets.
































In Jupiter, Roger Dean Stadium is state of the art. The bullpen is so close to the fans that it encourages Cardinal relievers to lean back and get some tips on how to pitch.
































































































Everything is quite civilized at Grant Field where the Toronto Blue Jays play. You park at the elementary school around the corner, you buy your beer, you take your seat, you make nasty comments about Raul Mondesi. Politely.
































Spring training is not a condensed southern-fried version of summer. It's a cheater's trip around America: it's picking apart Albert Belle's psyche with Marylanders and debating the merits of the U. of Michigan with Tiger fans.
































































































Since senior citizens are so prominent throughout Florida, why can't ballparks deliver food and drink to the seats? Waiters and waitresses (volunteers and ushers) could take orders and earn tips.







































Young people should see the practices, the drills, the repetition. They might understand that excellence doesn't just happen, that the best players in the world need preparation.











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Bruce Buschel's Guide to Spring Training
URL: http://www.cosmicbaseball.com/springt.html
Published: March 1, 2000
Copyright © 2000 by the Cosmic Baseball Association
email: editor@cosmicbaseball.com

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