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Ah, baseball. Ah, the Sun Belt. Ah, spring training. Once more the national pastime has migrated lock, stock and batting helmet from the cold gray skies of the North to the sun and fun of the South. While city dwellers look on from afar, the baseball entourage searches out diamonds in the palm trees. The following pages offer one man's fanciful view of spring training and an essay on how rewarding it can be when the winterbound fan decides to experience the joys himself.
Thrills at Every Turn
And so, once more, they go—base ball players and camp followers—into the sun for six weeks of make-believe. The beleaguered fans, meanwhile, are left behind to cope with fuel bills and read stories in the morning paper about the boys of summer performing the rites of spring. But why must the fans, why must you, only read about the glories of spring training? This might be the year to turn down the thermostat, pile the family into the car and head south to see baseball the way it's meant to be played—on real grass, in sunshine and at its own pace.
The main revelation of spring training is that players are people with faces and voices. They smile, chat, frolic and gladly sign autographs. This is especially true during the first three weeks, when most of the teams work out daily at "the complex"—an array of diamonds, open greensward, batting cages and pitching mounds. From about 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. players engage in calisthenics, running and endless drills. An infielder may take as many as 100 ground balls, a batter several buckets of balls from a pitching machine. Pickoffs, cutoffs, rundowns—any situation that is likely to come up during a game—are practiced over and over under the direction of coaches and special instructors who are usually familiar names from the past.
The fan can stand behind a batting cage in Tampa and listen to the Reds' Ted Kluszewski give pointers to Johnny Bench. Or watch the Cardinals' Hal Lanier teach the fine art of bunting in St. Petersburg. At any moment in Bradenton, the Pirates' Willie Stargell might come bounding off the field bellowing, "Anybody here want to talk baseball?"
Early in spring training the teams split up to play intrasquad games—the Menkes vs. the Williamses, for example, at the Blue Jay complex in Dunedin. On March 7 the exhibition games begin, often between teams in different leagues. The contests usually start at 1 p.m. in the Cactus League ( Arizona) and 1:30 in the Grapefruit League ( Florida). Tickets are generally available (price range $1 to $5), but it's wise to call ahead in the case of a traditional rivalry—or when the Yankees are coming to town. Also, if you want to see a specific player, ask if he's scheduled to play. Not every player makes every road trip.
The Angels train in Palm Springs, Calif.; the Cubs, Padres, Giants, Indians, A's, Brewers and Mariners in Arizona; and the Braves, Astros, Dodgers, Expos, Yankees, Orioles and Rangers on the east coast of Florida. But unless you have an unflagging allegiance to one of those teams, the best place to see spring training is on Florida's west coast, where you can easily visit the spring headquarters of seven teams and, with a bit of effort, four others. An example of the headaches: Fort Myers, the home of the Royals, is a laborious four-hour trip from St. Petersburg down Franchise Alley, a/k/a/ the Tamiami Trail.
There are thousands of places to stay—from cheaper inland motels ($35-50) to the $65-and-up-a-night rooms in the historic pink palace, the Don CeSar, on the St. Pete beach. Rooms at less lavish Gulf-front digs can be found starting at $40 a night. Condominiums start at $1,200 for the month.
The St. Pete area has some truly fine restaurants—and more truly awful ones. Some of the best: Bern's Steak House, the Flame and the Columbia in Tampa—all favorites of the Reds; Heilman's Beachcomber and The Island House in Clearwater Beach—Phillie hangouts; Peter's Place and Le Pompano in the St. Pete area, for those with more continental tastes. An inexpensive favorite in St. Pete is Ted Peter's Famous Smoked Fish where you can dine outdoors on picnic tables and enjoy smoked-mullet spread ($1.90) and cold beer (75�). Some of the best—and biggest—prime ribs you'll ever see are served at the Derby Lane greyhound track in St. Pete. (Yes, they do have doggy bags and you'll certainly need one—as well as a reservation several days in advance.) The dog track—and Tampa Bay Downs racetrack—are favorite haunts of Pete Rose and other stars. But resist the temptation to ask for autographs. The players are there for a good time, too.
If you plan your itinerary well, a tour of the camps can also include local celebrations and attractions. Some of the best are Walt Disney World near the Twins' headquarters in Orlando; Busch Gardens: The Dark Continent near the Reds in Tampa; the Plant City Strawberry Festival (Feb. 27 to March 7) near the Tigers in Lakeland. Payne Park in Sarasota is a festival of its own—a fairgrounds atmosphere in which White Sox players must mingle with fans just to get to the field. Sarasota's also the home of the Ringling Museums and the Circus Hall of Fame. Beware of Al Lang Stadium in St. Pete. The 4-year-old home of the Cardinals and Mets is a prime example of how not to build a ball park. The seats are situated so that most fans are unshaded and stare into the sun. The steps are too steep and there are few railings to help the elderly. But St. Pete does host Old Timers' Day—March 7 this year—which is always worth a few good memories and a few good laughs. And that's what spring training's all about.