Winter Haven, Fla. — You don't have to like baseball to like spring training, though it helps. The baseball and the training are just a little bit beside the point. The point is: spring.
Of all the ceremonies for burying a hard winter, none compares with spring training. Florida's reviving sun bakes warm and even on freshly mown grass as young men with rich tans do jumping jacks for the entertainment of retired folks wearing those dinky little souvenir baseball caps.
The millionaires on the field and the social security crowd in the stands are sharing more in common than their visors if we accept the argument of sportswriter Roger Angell -- that spring training constitutes a retraining of the fan as well as the ballplayer.
In this microcosm of the Florida ballpark a whole nation gets back in the mood for summer, including those who shiver far away over their sports pages.
Even the gulls that fly over the field, singly or in neat V-formations, seem to gaze down in delighted amazement at the athletes flapping their arms like grounded birds as they practice their morning calisthenics.
In Florida ballparks the human species comes out of hibernation for the benefit of all of us.
This is the ''next year'' we've been waiting for, and a kind of honeymoon benevolence pervades the scene.
The spring-training fan is as patient as the summer fan is not. Give him (it's mostly him) a pair of binoculars, and he will squint at anything as if he were witnessing the most spellbinding occurrence of his lifetime. He will watch in utter fascination as Jim Rice powers a ball over the left field fence. But he will watch with almost equal fascination as a reserve infielder performs a sit-up. And hours later he still will be watching -- eyes intent, mouth half-open -- as the grounds crew folds up the batting cage.
How small and intimate the jewel-box parks of Florida are! They bring players and fans together -- and fans and fans together -- as big-league parks cannot do. The park at Winter Haven seats about 3,800, and those 3,800 become a community on an old-fashioned scale, in an old-fashioned way.
Everybody speaks to everybody else, like members of a private club with common assumptions and enthusiasms no one would be so crude as to mention. Baseball in the spring may not be America's last communal value. But try naming six others in this divisive year of 1982.
The first game of spring training is like the first robin or the first daffodil up north -- the official signal of season's renewal. In Winter Haven the mayor and the president of the Chamber of Commerce shared honors in throwing out the first ball. Both proved to be southpaws who found the strike zone, which was more than could be said of one of the starting pitchers.
The folks from Lakeland cheered for the Tigers as if they came from Detroit. The folks from Winter Haven cheered for the Red Sox as if they came from Boston. But winning is not the idea of spring training, even to the competitors. An idyllic dreaminess hangs in the air, as if this mellow ambiance were the final purpose. An occasional rookie presses too anxiously. An occasional fan heckles out of habit. But most of those present come as close to being pure athlete and pure spectator as they ever will.
Exactly 70 years ago Ring Lardner wrote a spring training report on the economics of baseball in March 1912. He reckoned that it cost an owner $65,000 a year to pay a roster of 30 players. In 1982, $65,000 would pay one star to play maybe 30 games.
Agents are now as much a part of the spring training scene as batboys. ''Clubhouse lawyer,'' ttyh/Oo MoO a disputatious player in Lardner's day, is no longer a figure of speech. The memory of the 1981 strike hovers like the stale smoke from last week's forest fire. Baseball has a solid-gold look all the more glittering because of the rest of the economy. Sports may be the ultimate recession-proof industry.
Yet for all the talk that ''It's a business,'' it's still a modified pleasure too. After more than two decades as a Red Sox player, Carl Yastrzemski is not doing wind sprints in the outfield just for the money. Jerry Remy does not get paid extra for bowing his legs, hunching his shoulders, and doing his parody of odd and eccentric pitchers he has known.
The remark that professional baseball is a boy's game played for a man's -- a giant man's -- salary may have its true sting. But a compliment lurks here as well as a slur.
How many occupations are fun, not only for those who perform them but for those who kibitz? Baseball -- and daily life -- may be smeared with commerce. But with spring training the American heart returns to bubble-gum innocence no matter how cynical the American head.
Like the grass in a Florida outfield, hope -- thehardiest of perennials -- springs again.
In his diary, ''The Long Season,'' pitcher Jim Brosnan reconstructed the obligatory pep talk for a manager on the opening day of spring training: ''Wanna welcome all you fellows, wanna impress on you that you each got a chance to make this ball club. We got a big job to do, and with a couple of breaks I think we can win the pennant. Let's go get 'em.''
Who can help laughing? Who can help responding too?