As spring baseball training gets into full swing in western Florida the old folks, those who have got theirs and are taking it easy, hang out around the ball parks to recapture the nostalgic sights and sounds of the game; players chattering on the field like a bunch of guinea hens, the crack of many bats sounding like a squad of woodpeckers at work, the grating rasp of spikes on concrete, balls rising high into the sunshine and posses of players running across the outfield like something was after them.
Spring training is a story of youth and old age; agile young athletes frisking on the field, and in the stands crowds of elderly men and women, gray-haired, dignified and tolerantly amused. These oldsters wander from field to field sizing up the seven teams in this baseball complex centered around St. Petersburg. This year I joined these lucky septuagenarians and after careful study I can say that all teams look good—even the bat boys.
The last time I attended spring training was back in the Pleistocene period when the Giants trained at San Antonio, Texas. My job of selling soda pop at the field was only a subtle ruse to enable me to associate with those mighty men. One day I sold only three bottles of pop. Instead of hawking my wares I was out shagging balls for my heroes. I'd run my legs off and like it, but the big moments came when they'd put a glove on me and knock the ball straight into the sky. If I missed it as it returned to earth, I became the object of hooting derision. If I caught the ball it would knock me to the ground and they'd all laugh. But I didn't care—I was playing in the big league.
Following that I drifted away from spring training, drifted for almost 40 years in fact. But here I was again, right in the thick of it, talking to players, meeting managers and wandering around the field during practice. In sizing up the teams I discovered that baseball players have thick fingers, thick wrists and thick necks. It was explained to me that a ballplayer's neck is an extension of his shoulder muscles. One cynic said that in some instances they extend even higher, but I ignored this observation.
My first visit was to Al Lang Field, a tidy little ball park with palm trees along one side and Tampa Bay on the other. Sea gulls hovered over the outfield and a mockingbird was singing behind first base. The Cardinals were at batting practice and the crack of the bats and the plop of balls into gloves was like music. I was introduced to Fred Hutchinson, the manager, a big, dark-haired man of few words.
We had a little talk about the sea gulls that come down to search the diamond for anything edible. Jim Toomey, the publicity man, said they hadn't had any trouble with the pelicans as yet.
"They feed different," said Hutch. (Always call a ballplayer by his nickname.) Several others joined the group and somebody asked, "How does it look this year, Hutch?" There was a lengthy silence while Hutch pondered the query. Finally he looked straight into the eyes of his questioner.
"Our club looks pretty good," he said. Everybody nodded significantly. I soon learned that the most-asked question during early spring training is, "How does it look this year?" The answer is always pretty much the same, too. Not once did I hear a manager or a player say, "It looks awful."
I quickly learned, too, that the opening gambit in a conversation with a ballplayer is, "How's your weight?" The answer goes, "I came in about eight pounds overweight, but I'm all right now."