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There is the sense that in spring training baseball is more the game it was meant to be. It is then that baseball is removed from all those coliseums with chemical playing fields and transported again into the snug wooden ball yards where it can move at its own resolute pace. Most of the new parks were also designed to accommodate football, a game of compulsive urgency; but intimacy, not urgency, is baseball's charm, and in those purposely colossal structures the game seems anomalous, a little like Parcheesi played on a crap table.
Reflections such as these are considered blasphemous by the baseball Establishment. Nothing so unnerves a baseball person as the suggestion that his game is not fast enough to keep up with the times. And yet, Chub Feeney, president of the National League, has acknowledged that "ours is a game of suspense, of building tension, not continuous action." Suspense is best communicated through proximity, but unfortunately you do not attract two million customers playing in a facility that seats 15,000, nor do you earn $200,000 per summer throwing curveballs before such a chummy congregation. For better or worse, a game that is probably best enjoyed when played on a vacant lot before family and friends is now consigned to futuristic palaces with wall-to-wall carpeting.
Still, baseball cannot wholly shuck off its homespun image, for spring training is always there to show just how satisfying the game can be in the proper surroundings. Not that Florida or Arizona can be considered traditional baseball country or that the game as played there in the spring approximates midseason competence. The veteran players are in no great haste to put the hard edges on their softened bodies and the rookies are too frequently the victims of their own anxieties. In this atmosphere, the undeserving frequently rise to the top, only to sink swiftly once the regular season has begun.
But you can see the players in spring training. You can see up close what they look like, read their expressions, catalog their movements, analyze their styles. You can also see them off the field if you are shrewd enough to station yourself near the swimming pools, coffee shops and golf courses where, in the gaudy raiment that passes now for fashion, they may be seen whiling away the off hours. A discerning fan can learn more about his team watching a week of spring training than he can in a full season of squinting at it from the third deck of some superdome.
Three spring trainings ago my son Peter, then 12, was loitering poolside at the Caravan Inn in Phoenix when the San Francisco Giants' much-publicized new power hitter, Dave Kingman, suddenly appeared before him. Kingman was creeping up on a young lady of his acquaintance who, oblivious to his menacing approach, was seated in an ironwork chair reading a paperback novel. Kingman, who stands 6'6" and weighs 210, grasped the chair, hoisted it nearly to eye level and dumped its frightened occupant, novel and all, into the pool.
Watching this incident, my boy learned much about life, baseball and Dave Kingman. He learned 1) that Kingman was as strong as an ox and, therefore, had unusual potential as a Giant slugger, 2) that he was of a playful, even sophomoric, nature and 3) that since the dunked person seemed more amused than outraged by the indignity thrust upon her, Kingman probably had a winning way with women, a perception only dimly appreciated at the time by one of such tender years and sheltered upbringing. The boy now entertains his contemporaries with a recounting of this episode and is working toward the time when he can duplicate Kingman's feat, unmindful, perhaps, that in the intervening years the attitude of young women toward such high jinks may have changed drastically.
There are things even a more seasoned observer can learn from spring training. Until this year, when a worsening economy forced curtailment of such extravagances, the Giants had always entertained the press and assorted hangers-on after spring games at a free bar in the Governor's Room of the Caravan Inn. "Pheenoms," those rare flowers that bloom only in the spring, were discovered there nightly—"Man, what a curve-ball. A new Koufax"—and the fading past was given a fresh coat of paint. The bullfrog voice of a septuagenarian Giant scout, Tom ( Clancy) Sheehan, boomed through the window and carried to the poolside tables where young ballplayers entertained the local girls on warm, sensual evenings:
"Ain't nobody had the control old Alex had. Didn't walk a man 'cept on days when he'd had a few. I remember one game that got started late. The club had to catch a train in about an hour and a half. 'Don't need to worry 'bout a thing,' Alex said. 'We'll catch that train.' He threw nothin' but strikes and got that game over in an hour. Takes these guys that long to walk out to the mound."
The old are a part of spring training. The Milwaukee Brewers even play their games in a retirement community, Sun City, where the fans are driven to the ball park in electric carts. But the young are there, too, languishing in the sun, shirts and blouses off, slugging beer. Baseball is not so much catching up with the times as the times are slowing to meet it. Continuous action can be tiring.
So the game emerges again from hibernation in the temperate zones, reviving itself for another long pull. It is coming to life again, yes; but in those old ball parks and on living grass before people seemingly no more than an arm's length away, it is also rediscovering its roots. And that is only as it should be.