What is spring training, really? Just a place in the sun where baseball players work themselves into shape for the coming season? A time when practicing is more important than competing, and the games don't really count? Not quite, insist the fans who fill the pint-size ballparks across south Florida. From the vacationers here to preview their home teams to the many retirees who have deliberately settled in spring training towns, this is a special time of year.
``This is just like the World Series to us,'' exclaims Pete Nesterok as he gestures toward the playing field at Jack Russell Stadium, where his Philadelphia Phillies are opposing the New York Mets. It's only an exhibition game, of course - a contest that even most baseball fans would consider insignificant. But Nesterok and his wife, Lee, retired here from Delaware seven years ago just so they could spend days like this one.
``We took a vacation here and saw the closeness you could have with the team,'' he explains. ``That was the main thing, along with the weather. We could have settled on the east coast, but because the Phillies were here, we decided on Clearwater.''
Anyone who doubts the Nesteroks' commitment need only see them when they are decked out head to toe in Phillies red, replete with team hat and jacket. They attend all the team's spring training home games, and also follow their heroes to away games in relatively nearby places like Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Dunedin.
Like the Nesteroks, many retirees have chosen one Florida city over another at least partly because their favorite team trains there. Also, of course, there are the vacationers who select their destination with the same thought in mind.
According to a large Boston travel agency, hundreds of fans book spring excursions to the Red Sox' training site in Winter Haven, including game tickets and rooms in the same hotel where some players and team officials stay.
That such fans are spending much of their annual leave time on exhibition games does not faze them. Says Elmer West, who has come to the St. Petersburg area from Memphis, Tenn., for the only major league baseball he will see all year, ``On your vacation, you ought to be able to do whatever you want to. And I love baseball.''
Adds Richard Sullenger, a Cardinal fan down from St. Louis for the second consecutive year, ``It's like fishing or skiing or anybody's hobby.''
Not every spring training fan zeroes in on one team. Bob Cops, a vacationer from Wisconsin who doesn't have a favorite team, planned to catch nine assorted games in as many days.
Actually, a baseball vacation may have as much ``method'' as ``madness'' to it. The sunshine is still there, and people still get to the beaches and other tourist attractions. Moreover, most spring training fans unabashedly love baseball and feel they are watching the genuine article, even if the scores do not count.
``This is real baseball to me,'' says Lee Reid, as she watches her Mets in action in St. Petersburg's Al Lang Stadium. ``If you were sitting up in Shea Stadium in New York, you might feel exalted to be there, but the players are the same.''
Other aficionados point out that starters usually appear for about five innings, while their replacements put forth a considerable effort to make the squad. So the quality of play holds up. And certainly the fans cheer as heartily and reach for foul balls as eagerly as at any ballpark. And they say the peanuts and Crackerjack taste just as good down here.
Playing on a sunny day with the temperature in the 70s and the game sold out for weeks, the world champion Mets could just as easily be in the middle of the ``real'' season, an impression that grows when star outfielder Darryl Strawberry is hit with a pitch and both benches empty in anticipation of a brawl.
Actually, there is more of the postseason than the preseason to this particular contest, for the Mets are taking on the Boston Red Sox for the first time since the World Series last fall. The moment is not lost on Mrs. Reid, who observes, ``It's a big game today, and we felt like we had to be here.'' And while the 6,000 packed into this park cannot recreate the tumult of last year's sixth and seventh games in New York, they offer a convincing version in miniature.
Spring training enthusiasts, though, claim to get even more out of baseball than do their regular-season counterparts. ``Where else can you be within reach of six or seven ball parks?'' asks Leah Secondo, who is on her third pilgrimage from Enfield, Conn. Since these stadiums hold about 5,000, practically all seats are like box seats back home, and at a fraction of the cost.
Rich Romeo of East Windsor, Conn., notes, ``If you're an autograph seeker, it's better now than during the regular season. You can always get a lot closer to the players.''
``We go out to Tampa and talk to Pete Rose,'' boasts Nesterok, referring to the Cincinnati Reds manager and living legend who owns the major league record for most lifetime hits. ``Who can do that up north?''
The Nesteroks see an additional dimension in their closeness to the Phillies. ``The players feel like they're talking to their dads and moms,'' Nesterok reveals. ``They tell us about their kids, and we get to know their wives and girlfriends.''
So special is the connection between spring training fans and their teams that the impending move of the Mets next year from St. Petersburg across the state to Port St. Lucie is bound to cause some consternation - especially for retirees who can only watch their teams during the Florida ``season.'' Laments long-time Met watcher Artie Cockran, ``It's going to be tough. I don't know how many games I can get to over there.''
Rita Forsythe and her husband, who followed the Mets to St. Petersburg years ago, have found a solution: they plan to put their house up for sale and start looking for one in Port St. Lucie.
Lee Reid, meanwhile, says she may have to become a Cardinal fan - a switch that would be like quitting Macy's to work for Gimbel's.
Being attached to spring training has its other inconveniences, owing mainly to the mounting popularity of the exhibition games. Cops, who on his 10th trip here reigns as a sort of resident historian, complains, ``Eight years ago you could sit anywhere you wanted, but in the last five years it's been crazy. There are sellouts all over the place. You can't even park anymore. You drive into Lakeland, where the Tigers play, and all you see are Michigan license plates.''
Like the rest of America's baseball fans, people like the Nesteroks, Reid, and Cops are looking forward to Opening Day on April 6 - but for them the season has already begun in earnest.