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.
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.
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
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.
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,
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.