`TAKE me out to the ballgame'' - and let's go early. How about right now in Florida, during spring training? All but eight of the 26 major-league baseball teams gathered in Florida last month to practice in the sun and tune up their skills for the long hot summer ahead. (Seven of the others train in Arizona, one in California.)
Almost daily in March, the 18 Florida-based teams play one another in exhibition games. What could be better at a time of year when much of the North is knee-deep in snow and slush? (Take the family: At least some part of spring training coincides with most school vacations.)
In the words of one Detroit Tigers fan, spring training is ``baseball as it used to be.''
In an era when homey, grass-carpeted ballparks have become massive, AstroTurfed stadiums, some with domes that make day and night indistinguishable, spring training is more than literally a breath of fresh air and sunshine.
Most spring training ballparks are small, some with as few as 2,000 seats, with 10,000 about tops, so that even the fans in the seats farthest away are still close enough to watch the game without the need for binoculars.
Another plus is cheaper seats: adults $5, children $1 to $2 for general admission, so a family can attend two or three games for the cost of one back home.
Most of the teams train in or near tourist centers on the West (six teams) and East (seven) Coasts or clustered around Orlando in central Florida (five). Sights like Tampa's Busch Gardens, the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Sarasota's Ringling Museum of Art and Circus Museum, Disney World and Epcot Center in Orlando, and the Everglades and other East Coast attractions are short drives from various ballparks. One team - the Kansas City Royals - even trains at a tourist attraction: the new Boardwalk & Baseball amusement complex at Haines City.
A standard feature at a spring game is the weather announcement, an ``aren't we glad we're here and not back home'' notice. ``You'll be happy to know it's a blizzardy 37 degrees in Minneapolis right now, and here in Orlando it's a steamy 82 degrees.'' This is a cue for applause.
There's an amiable spirit in the crowd at a spring game. For one thing, the game doesn't count, so tense rivalries don't exist. Even the players are relaxed. Many enjoy hanging over the railing chatting and signing autographs for fans. Nowhere is the mingling more casual than at Dodgertown in Vero Beach. To reach the park, fans coming from the parking lot and players from their clubhouse share the same walkways. Once on the field, the players sit on benches directly in front of the seats; there's no dugout separating them.
Red Sox fans attending a spring game at Chain O'Lakes field in Winter Haven may notice ``Colonel Sanders'' sitting near first base. A perennial at Red Sox games for 13 years, his real name is Richard C. O'Mahony, but his goatee and wide-brimmed hat make the former New Englander a ringer for that fellow who sells Kentucky Fried. In fact, Mr. O'Mahony even answers to the nickname ``Colonel.''
Another fun aspect of spring training is that it gives fans a chance to preview the coming season and make predictions to friends who didn't make it to spring training. Thus one might say, ``Keep an eye on So-and-so this year, he seems sharper than ever.'' Just change the name each year, the refrain is the same.
You can obtain a free schedule of spring training games by writing (enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope): Florida Division of Tourism, 126 Van Buren St., Tallahassee, FL 32301; or Major League Baseball, 350 Park Ave., New York NY 10022; or individual teams for their own schedules.