• U.S.

Florida Spring’s Old Sweet Song

8 minute read
J. D. Reed

Dry palm fronds rattle behind the right-field fence. The odors of peanuts, mustard and beer waft over the emerald green grass, and in the inebriating sunshine, laughter and catcalls issue from the bleachers. An eight-year-old boy waves a miniature bat, a bikini-clad college student ogles the first baseman, and a pair of guys in U.A.W. T shirts argue earned-run averages in the shade of an entryway tunnel. At the plate, a nervous hopeful up from the minors squares his batting helmet and prays to the puffy clouds above the orange groves: God, please send the next one right down the chute.

Long before there was a Magic Kingdom, Florida was an enchanted land, a place where the vernal verities of spring training stopped time in its tracks. A recent preseason game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Cincinnati Reds in Plant City reassured like a Norman Rockwell painting: in some ways, things haven’t changed. Bats are swinging, and all’s right with the nation. The rituals that are played out in Florida and Arizona from early March into April are part of baseball’s enduring legacy, and generations of Northerners have taken refuge here in the balmy revels and toasty traditions of the grapefruit league.

Now, thanks to cable television, which beams preseason games back home, and to attractions such as Disney World, which draws millions of affluent tourists to Florida, spring training is becoming big business. That approach could threaten the easy charm of the national pastime, but so far, the sport seems to be succeeding on both offense and defense.

Elaborate facilities and swelling crowds are transforming spring training. The New York Mets and the Kansas City Royals have moved into new and slicker stadiums since 1987. In 1982 only 778,000 fans visited the 18 teams that train in Florida; last year the number nearly doubled, to 1.3 million; an even higher total is expected for 1989. Similar gains have been made in Arizona’s cactus league, where eight teams work out.

Preseason contests used to be a bargain, a cheap way to see one’s heroes at work. But now they’re a pricey entertainment. For a preseason box seat at aging Tinker Field in Orlando, the Minnesota Twins charge $7, about what it costs for an average seat during the regular season at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis. In 1991 the Twins are scheduled to move to a new complex in Fort Myers. “Spring training is a very special time unique to baseball,” says Dean Vogelaar, Kansas City Royals vice president for public relations. “But it’s a tourist crowd now.”

The Royals, who spent 19 years at a smaller stadium in Fort Myers, teamed up in 1988 with an amusement park located just southwest of “Mouse Town,” the locals’ term for Disney World. Boardwalk and Baseball, which dominates the skyline over surrounding orange groves, features both the Lipizzaner stallions and first baseman George Brett. For a dear $21, a fan can spend a day riding the roller coaster and taking in a contest at the Royals’ 8,000-seat stadium, where some 400 major- and minor-league games were played last year.

Among the baseball-oriented attractions on the boardwalk are batting cages where kids can try out their Little League swings against pitching machines and a throwing game that clocks the speed of visitors’ fastballs. Although they are Reds fans, Wayne and Ruth Thomas from Lebanon, Ohio, and their baseball-loving sons David, 8, and Mark, 6, were so taken with Boardwalk and Baseball that they stayed nearby on their first Florida vacation. “We’ve planned this trip for months,” says Wayne, “and we’ve already been to five games.”

While Disneyfication may be packing them into the new stadiums, traditional aspects of spring training still bloom in the sunshine. Even in the parks closer to professional size, fans are much nearer to the action and the players than they are during the regular season. The game seems larger than life. Up close, the players look like a squad of stunt men pretending to be athletes. They are too healthy, have too many capped teeth and gold chains, and look a little too old to be the real boys of summer.

Spring training remains a time of testing for regulars in the lineup and for minor-league hotshots. It is a process that remains accessible to fans. At the Reds’ new 6,700-seat stadium in Plant City, for instance, the fences may be a bit higher and the beer a bit more expensive, but one can hear the chewing tobacco hit the grass and smell the liniment on sore muscles. Conversations drift into the stands as players jaw about nursery schools and batting stances, free-agent trades and restaurants. During a recent game, a Cardinals rightfielder edged close to the Reds’ bullpen because he wanted to talk to a former teammate who was nursing his elbow on an ice pack. The Card would occasionally sprint away to stab at a fly ball, and then drift back for more gab. Says Minnesota Twins catcher Brian Harper: “The fields are smaller, so it’s easier for fans to get to us. That’s one of the best parts of spring training.”

For kids, spring training means touching heroes; for many dads, it’s a flashback to their own childhood. At 8 on a recent morning, families stood by the Tinker Field gate to see Twins players arrive for the afternoon game with the Toronto Blue Jays. Boys and a few girls held out Donald Duck autograph books, baseballs, photographs and baseball cards to be signed by particular stars. Stephen and Gregory St. Jacques, 10 and 8 respectively, collected the signatures of pitcher Allan Anderson and second baseman Steve Lombardozzi, among others. “I never got to spring training when I was young,” said the boys’ father Jerry St. Jacques, a Virginia computer-program director. “This trip is a part of my youth too.”

Fans lined the fence by the Twins’ batting cages to watch players, just a few feet away, groove their swings against automatic pitching machines. American League leading hitter Kirby Puckett (.356) whacked a few dozen balls and then wandered over to the fence to sign his name on caps, baseballs and odd pieces of paper. Puckett spends an hour or so a day signing baseball cards mailed to him by fans and sending them back in postpaid envelopes. He was joined by Cy Young Award winner Frank Viola, who pitched a 24-7 season last year. The chain link fence is some eight feet high, so kids tossed their books and balls over the top. After signing, the players threw the objects back over the fence, in one of Viola’s favorite spring rituals. “I was a shy kid,” remembers the Long Island native, “so I had my mom ask for Rick Barry’s autograph at a Nets game once. He refused. So I take as much time as I can signing autographs. The kids take it as a challenge. I’m easy to get, but some guys are tough.”

Other time-honored spring rituals take place at the fences. The wives and children of players often come out to games in Florida. Babies are dandled at the chain link, to be smooched by unshaven dads wearing polyester knickers and adorned with smears of soot under their eyes. Unmarried rookies attract wilder rail birds. Young women wearing shrink-wrapped slacks call hello to bullpen inmates; dates are made and possibly kept.

In Florida baseball cuts across the generation gap. There are two kinds of attractions here: adult, which means no children allowed, and family, indicating the loud presence of small people. But college students on spring break occasionally turn their beer-dousing noses away from Daytona Beach long enough to take in a game. Senior citizen Jack Keidel, who retired to Orlando some years ago and now works as a volunteer usher at Twins games, speaks for many of his peers when he says that baseball “breaks up the monotony of endless golf.” A 14-year-old wearing a T shirt emblazoned with the face of the Reds’ Chris Sabo, the N.L. Rookie of the Year in ’88, says, “It’s a toss- up. Baseball and girls are about equally boss.”

There may be new stadiums in Florida and big microwave dishes beside them to beam games to snowbound fans back home. But so far, at least, traditionalists need not worry. As the Reds battled past the Cards a couple of weeks ago, a boy ran a ballpoint pen along the bullpen fence. Jeff Gray, a young Cincinnati reliever, smiled and started walking toward him. The boy arced his baseball over the fence, and Gray caught it easily and said, “Where do you want me to sign?”

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