Spring training: when Reggie Jackson smiles back

Although spring training is necessary to get players in shape (primarily pitchers), evaluate new personnel, and decide which 25 athletes the manager will carry into the regular season, basically it is not part of the real world.

Without getting too syrupy, spring training is an affair of the heart: an irrational explanation, of course, but maybe not so irrational when applied to a state of mind.

Because ballparks are small, security relaxed, and players' tempers still more than three months from midseason form, this is the one time of the year when visiting fans are able to get close to their heroes.

It is possible to smile at Reggie Jackson, for example, get a smile in return , and maybe even a broken bat or scuffed ball if the youngster with you is under 12 and has suddenly acquired eyes the size of eggs.

It is also possible to chat with a player about baseball the way one would a friendly neighbor, get autographs, introduce the wife and kids, and even administer an occasional pat on the back. (Hey, Mom, I just shook hands with Steve Garvey!)

Generally, the first three weeks of spring training are given over to drills, calesthenics and the mastering of fundamentals.During that time it is possible to sit in the stands free, wander around a complex of baseball diamonds, or even linger behind a chain link fence near the batting cage catching all kinds of inane banter on the first bounce.

Personally, I have never been entertained by watching in infielder take 300 ground balls in practice; outfielders throwing constantly to the cutoff man; or hitters testing their skills against a mechanical pitching machine. What is fun is standing off to one side and listening to a pitching coach working with young arms trying to earn space in the team's regular rotation.

Although intrasquad games are often interesting because lineups are changed frequently, there is nothing like the first Grapefruit or Cactus League opener of the season to wake up the echoes. Anyone who has ever heard the Star-Spangled Banner over a PA system before a spring exhibition would swear that is the original record and is somehow mysteriously transported from one ball park to another.

Ticket prices for spring training games are no longer a bargain (box seats can run as high as $5.00), and it is wise to call ahead for reservations if it is a traditional rivalry or last year's World Series teams.

If you are coming to see a specific player, don't be surprised if he isn't in the lineup. This can happen if the player has a slight injury, is not scheduled to work that day, or, in the case of a road game, has been excused from making the trip.

Aside from the reams of publicity that it generates, how much of spring training is really necessary?

If you promise not to quote them by name, most players who work out regularly on their own during the winter months are willing to admit that six weeks of spring training is too long. What they need to get ready, they say, are two to three weeks of practice, provided that they can also play in five or six exhibition games.

The exceptions are pitchers, who need all the time they can get to strengthen their arms and establish the rhythm that, once the regular season begins, will let them start a game after only three or four days rest. While the job of the relief pitcher is different, since he may be called on for only two or three innings at a stretch, his preparation is the same.

Every spring training camp, of course, has its own bona fide phenom, who can run like the wind, field like Joe DiMaggio, or hit like Rogers Hornsby. Generally these hotshots last only until the veteran pitcher throws his first breaking ball.

A typical spring training baseball story, even as late as the 1940s, nearly always had palm trees swaying in the breeze, parks bathed in oceans of sunshine, the hitters ahead of the pitchers, and the manager claiming his usual pennant.

It was a time of innocence when teams still barnstormed their way north, when train travel provided easy access to out of the way places, and when Babe Ruth could make a whole town come to the ballpark.

The off-beat stories rushing up from the Southland were probably better, too. They would often be bizarre tales of substandard hotel steaks that had been nailed to dining room walls or veterans keeping rookies in line by sawing their bats in half.

Anyway, if you're a baseball fan, some year you should plan a spring training trip, preferably with the wife and kids, and particularly if you still be lieve in Peter Pan, the Tooth Fairy, and Casey Stengel!

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