In most major cities for those who still care—and there are those who do—spring training, or the impression of spring training, begins in the heart of winter, when the local baseball dinner is held. Men with reputations are brought in—reminders of statistics of seasons past—and many awards are presented. When the Rubber Chicken Circuit reaches Baltimore they actually present something called the Babe Ruth Crown, usually to someone who has hit a lot of home runs. For many of the banquets the newspapermen in charge start lining up guests long before the season ends. If you wait to see who actually becomes MVP it is probably too late to get him; he has too many other commitments and will not want to get out of shape by overdoing the banquet circuit.
In Kansas City the baseball dinner is held late enough in winter for people at least momentarily to have stopped talking about the Super Bowl. Last year's was quite a gathering, with Gaylord Perry, a Cy Young Award winner; Chuck Tanner, manager of the year; Billy Williams, the
' National League player of the year; Gene Tenace, World Series hero (always referred to as " Gene Tenace, World Series hero," lest anyone forget who he was); Casey Stengel as himself; Joe Garagiola as the featured speaker; a host of Royals and ex-Royals and the new Royal manager, Jack McKeon.
The ballroom in which the dinner was held was packed, and the Royal Lancers, a booster organization that helped run the show, could count itself proud. All of the stars even showed up well in advance to meet the press. Garagiola plugged the Jan Stenerud sports show, Tenace discoursed on the Series, and Perry, in a frightful checked suit, parried innumerable witless allusions to spitballs. Casey, very old now, just talked. The TV film ran out and he kept talking; the interviewer let the mike drop there, limp, and he kept talking; a man doing a radio interview nearby with Williams came over and told him to keep it down, which he did, but he also kept talking. An oldtimer who was watching it all shook his head and said, "What a showman, what a showman."
Buddy Blattner, once a ballplayer and now a Voice of the Royals, was the emcee at the dinner that night. He was assisted by two sequined ladies, each of whom came disguised as a pair of bosoms. They gave out the trophies. Blattner told obscure Lou Piniella jokes and said such things as, "What a galaxy of stars you have here tonight," and "Now we direct your attention to the Royal Stage and invite you to enjoy a musical tribute to one of baseball's finest...."
Even the groundkeeper won an award, and everybody was introduced, not omitting "the Royal Lancer Supreme" and a priest who was identified as "the spiritual leader of the Royals." Interspersed were little song-and-dance skits done by a leggy group called The Pinch Hitters. For example, to the tune of Fr�re Jacques: " Gaylord Perry, Gaylord Perry...Does he throw a spitter? Does he throw a spitter? ...He won't tell, he won't tell."
Then old Casey came up and did 34 minutes of gibberish, and after the first two or three minutes everybody began to shift uncomfortably. The program had started at 8:15, and it was getting on toward 11 when the old gentleman just abruptly stopped talking. Poor Bobby Richardson. He was to get the final award, for brotherhood or sportsmanship or youth work, one of those, but everybody was about to fall asleep. So Richardson, who had come all the way from South Carolina, could say hardly more than just a nice thank-you.
Though it was such a long evening, everybody appeared to have a good time, and everybody said they would be back next year, and hopefully K.C. could then offer a genuine MVP.
The dinner done, ahead lay spring training itself. On the last day in February before it began officially, Manager McKeon, leading the Royals' advance guard into the tropical paradise of Fort Myers, spit tobacco juice into his waste-basket and told the club P.R. man on the other end of the phone back in Kansas City how wonderful the weather was. "You damn right, I'm excited," McKeon exclaimed. "If I said anything else, I'd be lying." Tomorrow would be his first day in the big leagues. He had spent a quarter of a century in the bushes pointing for that day. He winged another stream into the wastebasket. "I never even got to a major league camp," he said. "The closest was New Orleans, Double A Southern, the spring of '53." Ptui.
He had a speech all written out on yellow foolscap that he planned to deliver to the players the next day, and he practiced the choice parts. "In this spring training, baseball comes first, even before your family and your church." Ptui. "It took me a long time to get here, and I don't plan to leave in a hurry."
Outside, in beautiful little sunbathed Park T. Pigott Memorial Stadium—360 down the lines, gaily colored chair seats, royal palms swaying all around—a couple of members of the advance guard sprinted in the outfield. There were two oldtimers in the stands idly watching and chewing the fat. One of them, a retired Army colonel, said, "The politicians tied our hands behind our backs."