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BASEBALL: Spring Ritual Is Enduring Pastime

March 13, 1988|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN | Goldstein is a free-lance writer and frequent contributor to the Calendar S ection .

PHOENIX — Spitting sunflower seeds between his knees, Reggie Jackson was sitting in the bullpen, signing autographs for vacationing fans and giving business advice to former teammate Doug DeCinces.

Robin Yount was outside the batting cage with a couple of baby-faced minor league prospects, showing off his latest batting stance.

That Cloudless Day

Later that day, young sluggers Jose Canseco and Will Clark posed for an awe-struck 12-year-old photographer, while Chili Davis regaled his teammates with a theatrical account of his previous day's inside-the-park home run.

Since that cloudless day in March, 1987, Reggie has retired. DeCinces is playing in Japan. Clark has made his first playoff appearance. And Davis has been traded from the San Francisco Giants to the California Angels, where he'll start in right field--once Reggie's domain.

The uniforms change and old champions are replaced by new contenders, but travelers in love with the game claim baseball is a sport of continual renewal. That's what makes the game such an enduring pleasure--and if you're a fan, the best place to see the new season unfold is right here, at spring training.

From April through October, baseball is big-time entertainment, operating out of cavernous stadiums where, if you sit around the infield, you need binoculars to see who's in the bullpen.

Casual Atmosphere

But here, where the exhibition season lasts from the end of February into the first week of April, baseball is still a game.

Ballparks are so small that if Angels manager Gene Mauch gets into an argument with the plate umpire, you can hear the colorful insults all the way up in the cheap seats. The atmosphere is so casual that if you wait till the players finish running wind sprints after the game, you can get an autograph from virtually anyone--even the biggest stars.

Most major league clubs train in Florida, playing in what's known as the Grapefruit League.

But eight teams spend each spring playing in Arizona's Cactus League (counting the Angels, who split time between Mesa and Palm Springs). The majority of squads are based in the Phoenix area, which means that you can stay here or in a suburb and drive to one of five ballparks, each no more than 30 minutes away.

The Cleveland Indians are down the road in Tucson, a scenic two-hour drive south, and the San Diego Padres are in Yuma a four-hour trip west.

Each club makes its home in a distinctive park. My wife is a loyal Milwaukee Brewers fan, so we spend much of our time at the Brewers' Compadre Stadium in Chandler, a booming new suburb 30 minutes southeast of Phoenix.

The trip to the park gives you a sense of Phoenix's amazing growth. When the ballpark opened three years ago, the last few miles of the drive were on bumpy dirt roads past acres of farmland and pastures full of cows and horses. Now most--but not all--of the streets are paved, and subdivisions are beginning to fill in much of the land.

Pennant Predictions

If you want to hear boisterous fans, go to the Chicago Cubs' Hohokam Park in Mesa where you can see legendary Cubs broadcaster Harry Carey sunning himself in the box seats, offering unsolicited pennant predictions to anyone who'll listen.

You'll find plenty of engaging characters. We sat with an impulsive Chicago insurance salesman who'd ditched all his appointments and headed for Arizona; he sheepishly admitted that he'd called his wife from the airport, claiming he was leaving on a sudden business trip.

If it's autographs you want, try the San Francisco Giants park in Scottsdale or stately old Phoenix Municipal Stadium, home of the Oakland Athletics, both of which offer the easiest opportunities to approach players as they reach the field.

Though kids are the noisiest autograph hunters, you'll see plenty of adults with pens and programs at the ready--my wife once muscled her way through a pack of 12-year-olds to get to Brewers star Paul Molitor.

That's the delight of spring training--it's baseball's folksy version of a Broadway dress rehearsal.

At the start of a Brewers game last year, we noticed that Manager Tom Trebelhorn was missing from his seat at the end of the dugout. Finally, at the end of the second inning, he casually walked past the stands and onto the field, stopping to chat with his first-base coach and the plate umpire.

A fan near us asked the first-base coach where Trebelhorn had been.

"He overslept," the coach answered with a grin. By the fifth inning, Trebelhorn was so involved in the game that he nearly got thrown out after rushing onto the field to argue a close call.

Performance Counts

That's the spirit of spring training--the games don't mean anything, but they mean everything. Sure, the statistics don't count, but everyone's performance matters plenty, especially for young players fighting for a place on the roster or veterans trying to hang on for one last season.

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