Spring training: hitting, pitching - and hope

Thirty teams gathered in two states. More than 1,750 players battling for 750 jobs over six weeks. Who will make the Major League roster? Find out this April.

That might sound a bit like the opening to a reality TV show, but the reality is that baseball spring training games are starting this week in Florida and Arizona. Players young and old hope to stretch, run, throw, catch, and hit their way onto their team's 25-man roster so they can compete in Major League Baseball's 162-game regular season.

For players the work has just begun. For fans, the beginning of spring training provides hope that this will be the year "their" team wins the World Series.

The fact that more than 250 players switched teams during the off season - a handful of them high-priced, high-profile players - has given fans reason to be optimistic for the 2005 season.

For proof, look no further than Port Saint Lucie, Fla., the springtime home of the New York Mets.

Under clear skies, swaying palm trees, and 80-degree heat, more than 1,700 fans mill about eight practice fields as players run through a regimen of bunting, fielding, and hitting drills.

Many have come to see two men: Carlos Beltran and Pedro Martinez.

As free agents, the two players signed huge contracts to join the club. Beltran left the Houston Astros after receiving the largest contract of any player this year: $119 million over seven years.

By comparison, Martinez will receive a "paltry" $53 million over four years. The normally aloof pitcher, who helped the Red Sox win their first World Series in 86 years, is all smiles as he banters with the crowd.

Wherever Pedro goes, dozens of young fans follow closely behind. Among them is 15-year-old Dan Caplan of Westchester, N.Y., who's wearing a Mets jersey with his favorite new player's name and number on it.

"Good luck this season," Dan says.

"Thanks, I hope you come to see me play," Pedro replies as he works on his pick-off move.

"I will. I only live 10 minutes away from Shea Stadium."

"Then maybe I can come over for dinner," Pedro tells the boy and his now-laughing audience.

"We'll make anything you like," Dan replies.

After hearing the conversation, Dan's mom, Sharon, says of her son, "He's so happy now, I wish we could bottle it."

But not everyone is thrilled with Pedro's act. Nearby, a fan in a Red Sox cap grumbles, "Ah, we don't need him anymore."

Regardless of his critics, Martinez is looking forward to having success with his new team and his new fans.

"I'm nice with the fans who are nice to me," he says. "I know a lot of people are expecting me to do my thing [pitching], before they start trusting me."

Pedro's friendly manner with the fans contrasts with the businesslike approach of his teammates, who focus on the drills that will help them get ready for about 30 preseason games and then the regular season.

From a competitive standpoint, Martinez's mere presence will boost the team's confidence, says Mets outfielder Cliff Floyd. "The main thing for us having Pedro is that we get that swagger. We need that smack in the behind. I think he's going to provide that for us."

Mets officials are pleased with how players and fans have reacted to the club's new players. Season ticket sales are up in New York, they say, and sales at the Port Saint Lucie box office are, too. "We've seen a 20 percent boost in ticket sales," says Paul Taglieri, the Mets director of Florida operations.

Thirty miles north at the Dodgertown complex in Vero Beach, spring training ticket sales have risen 15 percent, according to a Dodger spokesman.

From now until the end of the month, fans from cold-weather states will be streaming into Florida and Arizona to soak in some sunshine and pay as much as $40 a ticket to take in games that mean nothing in the standings. Last year, ticket sales for the preseason topped 3.6 million, a 25 percent rise from 2000.

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