Anticipation Springs Back Into Baseball

Fans and players are eager for a strike-free season as they survey new features in the sport's landscape

WHATEVER happens once major-league baseball opens its new season March 31, the vibrations at spring training have been good. Among the palm fronds of Florida and the cactus needles of Arizona, the momentum of last year is almost palpable, supported by perennial curiosity about how things will play out given offseason changes, including player moves and a slightly enlarged strike zone.

In this reporter's recent swing through several training sites in Florida, the enthusiasm was perhaps most evident - unexpectedly so - at McKechnie Field in Gulf-hugging Bradenton. There, the Pittsburgh Pirates were hosting the Detroit Tigers - another '95 also-ran - in a battle of low-octane teams.

Two-and-a-half hours before a local high school choir was to sing the national anthem, Glenn Besomen stands beyond the left field fence with a baseball glove. A retired junior high school history teacher from Michigan, Besomen doesn't need ESPN's promo campaign - the one in which Abe Lincoln drives home the ''It's baseball. And you're an American'' theme - to rekindle his interest after two strike-scarred seasons. ''This is what I look forward to,'' he says of his annual romance with the Grapefruit League.

At the first crack of the bat, Besomen instinctively scans the sky. One never knows when Tiger slugger Cecil Fielder might begin to rain batting-practice pitches over the fence. The wind is blowing out toward the Tropicana orange-juice plant, and the sun-baked grandstand is filling up nicely.

On the field, dyed-in-the-wool baseball writer and ESPN commentator Peter Gammons tells everybody that spring training feels special this year. ''Most players were in camp early,'' he says. ''I think most players realize they love to play and realize how much they missed spring training'' last year, when a strike seriously curtailed it

Detroit third-baseman Travis Fryman says the fans have been wonderful. ''The new playoff format got a lot of them back in the game,'' he says. ''I don't watch much baseball, but I really enjoyed the Yankees-Mariners series.'' And that was only a first-round matchup.

The World Series was a made-to-order fan enticer between the sport's winningest 1995 teams - the Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians. The series' outcome is reflected in the clubs' preparations for this year: Atlanta elected to stand pat, jettisoning some expendable players for the cash needed to re-sign first-baseman Fred McGriff and centerfielder Marquis Grissom. Cleveland strengthened its pitching staff by adding highly regarded free agent Jack McDowell, a Yankees player last year.

As the reigning world champions, the Braves are a major spring training attraction. Their drawing power was apparent in Kissimmee, Fla., last Saturday, when many fans bought standing-room-only tickets to see the Houston Astros host Atlanta on an unusually frigid Florida afternoon.

Among the witnesses to Atlanta's 3-0 win was Braves general manager John Schuerholz, the first man ever to serve as GM of World Series winners in both leagues. (He was Kansas City's GM when the Royals were champions in 1985.)

In the press box of Osceola County Stadium neither Schuerholz nor others in the game seem inclined to talk of contracts or economics. The general tenor is that there has been more than enough discussion about money of late. The subject refuses to go away, however, especially when players and owners still must negotiate some major unfinished business - a new collective bargaining agreement.

Schuerholz wants to talk baseball - about the stuff that really holds the public's attention. Numerous personnel changes vie for center stage. The Baltimore Orioles have been active, seeking baseball acumen and athleticism in their dealings. They picked up two of the top managers in the business: Davey Johnson has the best winning percentage among active mangers, and Pat Gillick takes over as general manager.

Gillick served the Toronto Blue Jays in that capacity when they won the 1992 and 1993 World Series. Johnson comes over from the Cincinnati Reds, but in 1986 he managed the New York Mets to a World Series crown.

Gillick, who was lured out of retirement, has made a bunch of moves, but none bigger than signing free agent second-baseman Roberto Alomar, one of the best players of his generation. He will team with shortstop Cal Ripken to form a dream double-play combination that may be the best since Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese teamed on the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950s.

Altogether, six teams have new general managers, including Detroit, whose Wunderkind Randy Smith became the youngest ever to hold that job three years ago - at age 29, for San Diego. One baseball writer has called him the front-office equivalent of Ken Griffey Jr., the all-everything outfielder of the Seattle Mariners.

Some familiar faces are gone from the game, namely manager Sparky Anderson, outfielder Dave Winfield, and first-baseman Don Mattingly, who played his entire career for the Yankees. Others are back: Ryne Sandberg, who last played in 1994, is rejoining the Chicago Cubs, and ex-Met Dwight Gooden is trying to earn a starting pitching job with the Yankees after a yearlong suspension for drug abuse.

Five other teams have new managers: St. Louis (Tony La Russa); New York Yankees (Joe Torre); Cincinnati (Ray Knight); Detroit (Buddy Bell); and Oakland (Art Howe).

Perhaps the most intriguing of these hires was La Russa's. The former Oakland manager guides a team that bears a resemblance to the A's he led to the World Series three times, including their 1989 championship.

After 17 years spent in the American League, La Russa will see what he can do in the National League. Baltimore's Davey Johnson, meanwhile, is heading the opposite way: He joins the Orioles, for whom he once played, after managing in the National League for 10 years.

LA RUSSA and Johnson chatted near home plate before a recent St. Louis-Baltimore birdwatchers' delight in St. Petersburg. They presented photographers an opportunity not only to pair two of the most successful skippers in baseball, but also two with perhaps the most arresting academic credentials: La Russa graduated from Florida State University's law school; Johnson holds a mathematics degree from Trinity University in Texas.

Before the game, La Russa sat in the Cardinal dugout and spoke of the heightened importance of teaching players at the major-league level, brought on by the shrinkage of farm systems and the haste to promote high-paid prospects.

''Players used to have so many more minor league innings or at-bats,'' he explained. ''The process of working through all the levels and competing all the time forced you to learn to play the game. Now ... if you show talent, you very likely will be pushed. And when you get here [to the majors], you see a lot of differences in how well a guy can execute [a play] or even how well he can understand what the play is.''

As La Russa spoke, fans began to search out seats in the upper reaches of Al Lang Stadium, an area evidently not often visited by spectators. ''We only make one trip per spring training up here,'' said a peanut vendor in a ''last gas for 100 miles'' tone.

From the look of the crowds this spring, though, few vendors will hike to the uppermost rows unrewarded. Customers have returned like swallows to Capistrano, eager to usher in what everyone hopes will be the first full season in three years.

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