ON an unseasonably chilly night in central Florida, a group of baseball beat writers busily take potshots at the Houston Astros. From the press box at Osceola County Stadium in Kissimmee, they guffaw over a succession of less-than-pinpoint throws during pregame infield practice.
''Not one throw is on the base,'' one writer complains. ''They're worse than high schoolers,'' another observes. Then, suddenly, without realizing it, the Astros silence their critics with a series of crisp, glove-popping bull's-eyes.
This, in essence, is what baseball spring training is all about: getting the kinks out and putting principle into practice. Only this year, the top craftsmen -- the major-leaguers -- have stayed home because of a long, acrimonious labor dispute that has turned Florida into one huge strike zone.
Up one coast, down the other, and at points in between, 21 Grapefruit League clubs have hung out ''vacancy'' signs. They are busy auditioning a gumbo of prospects -- minor-leaguers, returning journeymen, and newcomers -- to determine who is willing and able to stock major-league rosters come Opening Day on April 2.
Craig McMurtry, a pitcher with a portfolio (1983 National League Rookie of the Year) in the Astros' camp, expresses a concern shared with other possible replacement players. ''I don't want to do anything to jeopardize friendships formed over my 15 years as a ballplayer,'' he says.
Seeking to avoid the scarlet-letter stigma of being labeled strikebreakers, 84 minor-leaguers walked out of the Cincinnati Reds' Plant City, Fla., camp rather than play exhibition games. The team was left scrambling for stand-ins.
To fill the void, the Reds made a trade with Cleveland, acquiring five replacement players in exchange for future compensation. ''Cleveland got the better of the deal,'' grumbled Reds' manager Davey Johnson cynically. ''They didn't get anybody.''
This sort of reaction has done nothing to instill public confidence in the quality of exhibition play. Such remarks may have contributed to decreased attendance and inspired the bumper sticker: ''Avoid crowds and traffic -- attend a replacement game.''
But if replacement ball started off slowly, it has gradually earned a modest degree of respect, from some baseball insiders, at least.
''Things are starting to change,'' says ex-major-leaguer Greg Mathews, a pitcher brought in by the Kansas City Royals. ''I see the attitude changing on the coaching staff. Even they had misconceptions coming in that this was going to be sub-par baseball. They're seeing a lot of quality athletes working hard and they're beginning to respond positively to the the players and we're becoming a team.''
SPORTSCASTER Ernie Harwell, the longtime ''voice'' of the Detroit Tigers, says there's not as much power and speed without the regular big-leaguers. He doesn't sound cheated, though. ''If the competition is reasonably equal, it's still baseball,'' he volunteers, ''and if the definition of a major leaguer is 'the best player available,' this is that.''
Whatever one's view of the relative merits or demerits of the teams in training, the general character of Florida camps is reassuringly intact.
The players are eager, the fields well groomed and green, the atmosphere invitingly casual.
In small confirmation of this last point, Houston general manager Bob Watson keeps his baseball cap on while presiding over the executive offices that sit at the junction of four practice diamonds.
From there he can spy some indigenous sights -- sea gulls sunbathing on an unoccupied field and a huge osprey nest atop a towering light pole. (Environmentalists have made sure the bird's home remains undisturbed.)
The players, some wearing such uncommonly high uniform numbers as 76 and 68, are drilled on the fundamentals and rotated through work stations at the sound of an air horn. There is plenty of running, hitting, throwing, and collecting balls that lie scattered around the field like white mushrooms.
In some ways, spring training is a reunion of people who can never get enough of baseball. That is why the departure several weeks ago of Detroit manager Sparky Anderson, who said he didn't want to compromise his principles, was so disconcerting.
Despite Anderson's exit, many regulars have returned to Florida like swallows to Capistrano. Manager Tommy Lasorda is back in the Dodger dugout, exhorting his players as enthusiastically as ever and calling baseball ''a great game'' at every turn.
Gene Mauch, who managed many teams, is over at the Kansas City Royals' immaculate Baseball City complex near Davenport, coaching young players on how to lay down perfectly placed bunts.
Here in Kissimmee, Ed Buckie, who has scouted since 1948 (first for the New York and San Francisco Giants and then for Houston), tells a reporter about one of his best New England finds, slugger Jeff Bagwell, who's on strike.
The presence of these and other dyed-in-the-wool baseball types has helped the majors to weather this demoralizing spring.
The real Grapefruit heroes, however, may be the senior citizens who continue to cheerfully serve as ticket-takers and concession and parking-lot attendants throughout Florida. Strike or no strike they succeed in making the atmosphere especially welcoming.