On Florida's diamonds, hope glistens

Baseball's annual rite of spring prepares the 'boys of summer' - and their expectant fans - for another reach at glory.

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Spring training occupies a kind of sacred status among baseball fans.

More than just preparation for a new season, it is a celebration of renewal and hope. Of tradition and loyalty. Of pure love for a kid's game played hard by grown men.

It is the sound a Louisville Slugger makes at the moment it collides with a 90-mile-per-hour fastball.

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It is a 10-year-old trying to gather the courage to thrust a baseball and a pen toward a player and ask: "Will you sign this for me?"

This is March in Florida.

The rest of the country might be icy cold and dreary, but down here it's time once again for the "boys of summer" to play ball.

"We just come out to enjoy the smell of the yard," says Steve Morgan, reclining in the bleachers while watching the Baltimore Orioles play in a night game at Fort Lauderdale Stadium.

It is a bittersweet understatement from someone who has seen spring training from both sides, as player and fan. Mr. Morgan pitched two seasons in the Boston Red Sox farm system in Battle Creek, Mich., before being released in 1997.

"I wish I was back doing it," he says of his two spring-training shots with the Red Sox. "I relate to the players. I feel as though this is my spring training, too."

Of the 30 teams in Major League Baseball, 20 hold preseason training camps in Florida. Called the Grapefruit League, it pumps some $500 million a year into the state's economy. The other 10 teams work out in Arizona, making up the Cactus League.

Pitchers report for duty in mid-February, followed by rookie position players and then the veterans. By the beginning of March, the teams are playing a game a day against one another in preparation for opening day next Monday.

The games are played in small stadiums under relaxed conditions that allow fans far more access to the players than in big-city stadiums.

"You are just feet away from the players. It is as if you can almost reach out and touch them," says Hubert Bernheim of Hilton Head, S.C., a longtime Orioles fan.

And it's not just active players. Many baseball greats also show up at spring training.

The easy access creates numerous opportunities for autograph-seeking fans. "I got Lou Brock today," says Judd Walker, who is spending the entire month in the ultimate baseball pilgrimage, traveling from camp to camp while watching different major-league teams play every day.

"I run into a lot of people doing this," says Mr. Walker, who says he is living a boyhood dream.

Some kids get to live their boyhood dreams in real time, like Drew Reese, a pitcher who bats cleanup for the New Fairfield (Conn.) Rebels. The 11-year-old Little Leaguer is wearing the No. 8 Orioles jersey of his favorite player, Cal Ripken Jr., and he's hoping to get a few good autographs before the Orioles game.

How does a kid from Connecticut not root for either the Red Sox or the New York Yankees?

Drew's dad, Dan Reese, explains: "We've become Orioles fans in part because this is the spring-training camp closest to where Grandma lives."

The Orioles have conducted their camp at Fort Lauderdale Stadium since 1996.

Drew's dad says during the baseball season, the closest stadium to their Connecticut home is in the Bronx. "We will go to Yankee Stadium and see the Yankees play the Orioles or the Red Sox," he says. "And what we learn [from being at training camp] is the importance of practice and seeing what it takes to get from here to there."

One person who knows what it takes to get from here to there is Andy Etchebarren, who was the Orioles' starting catcher in 1966, when the O's won the World Series.

Mr. Etchebarren has been to 38 spring-training camps as a player and coach. He says from a player's perspective, spring training is a pain in the neck - and pretty much everywhere else, too.

"The first 10 days of spring training when you are a player, you are so sore," he says.

But the hard work is necessary to get back into major-league playing condition. For pitchers, it means arm strength, endurance, and accuracy. For batters, it means power and timing.

For those in the stands, spring training offers a preview of new talent as young prospects are given a shot at a promotion from minor-league squads. Spring training also offers fans their first look at new players acquired during the off-season. And perhaps most important, it offers fans an opportunity to talk baseball at a time when the entire season lies ahead and standings are theoretical.

"This is my favorite time of year," says Josh Friedman, a Chicago Cubs fan who covers the Florida Marlins for WQAM sports radio in Miami. "You sit out in the sunshine and watch baseball."

He says easy access to players during spring training plays an important role in perpetuating baseball's fan base. Mr. Friedman says while some major-league ballplayers have a reputation for shunning fans, most are more than happy to accommodate them.

"If you give a little kid an autograph, you have a fan for life," he says. "The kids never, ever forget that."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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