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CHRIS ERSKINE / THE GUY CHRONICLES

Suddenly, Spring Comes Out Swinging

March 15, 2000|CHRIS ERSKINE

Welcome to the Froot Loop League, distant cousin of Florida's Grapefruit League, a spring training season so intense, so full of pressure, that it'll make a young player's stomach take a bad bounce.

"I think I ate too many eggs," says the little girl as she chases a pop-up.

"That was yesterday," I tell her.

"I think I ate too many eggs," she tells somebody else.

We are planted here in the warm spring grass, loosening up our arms and searching for the next Sammy Sosa, a player with a wide smile and all the other tools. A smile, an arm and big-time power.

First, we stretch. Then we hop sideways. Then some of the girls practice grounders while others practice pitching. "Circuits," they call this in the Froot Loop League. Small groups working on vital skills.

"Listen up, men," I tell them as they finish their first drill.

"Yeah, listen up," the assistant coach says.

*

And the little girls look at each other, knowing they're in the right place. This is serious softball, coached by people who apparently know what they're doing. For players of promise, it is the best place to be.

"I like your shirt," the little girl says to the player next to her.

"I like your shirt, too," says her friend.

Later, on the other side of town, their big brothers begin spring training too. On the big field: 90-foot bases, 60-foot mound.

"That pitcher can't be 14," one of the fathers says, looking at the big eighth-grader warming up on the mound.

"Yep, he's 14," I say.

"I think you're all 14," my wife says, before going to sit with the other moms.

"What'd she mean by that?" my buddy asks.

"I guess we look young," I say.

And the baseball dads stand at the edge of the dugout, disciples of Earl Weaver and Ben Gay, evaluating the new crop of talent and trying to get a handle on this young season.

"Down on the ball!" we yell to the infielders.

"Move in!" we scream to the outfield.

Then the practice game begins and everybody is 14 again, in the March sunshine, the new grass and clover growing right beneath our feet.

As we watch the game, we rub our shoulders, the dads do, shoulders tender from hitting 100 pop-ups or throwing batting practice. Tonight, our wives will have to help us peel off our T-shirts. But for now, everybody feels 14.

"Hands off your knees!" a coach yells.

"Down and ready," someone screams.

The baseball dads hope this is just the beginning of a good, long season. The Froot Loop League is renowned for seasons that go by too quickly, on fields that start soft and green like this, then turn hard and brittle by June.

Right now, everyone looks like a winner. Even this team, provided we get a little cooperation from the moms. If not, we may have to trade a couple of them.

"Hey, Mom, you've just been traded," the boy would say.

"Traded?" the mom would ask. "Where to?"

"The Angels," the boy would say.

"Just my luck," the mom would answer.

Back home, the boy and his little sister slurp cold drinks and carefully throw their gloves in places they don't go, then flop on the couch eating Thin Mints.

"Does your glove go on the couch?" I ask.

"Sure," says the little girl.

"No, it doesn't," I say.

So she takes it in her room and throws it on the floor.

"Does your glove go on the floor?" I ask.

"Sure," she says.

"No, it doesn't," I say.

Finally, she slips it under her big sister's mattress, the best place for a glove between games, under a mattress.

"We should put it under Mom," the little girl says.

"Good luck with that," I say.

So she keeps her stiff new glove under her big sister's mattress, where it will be crushed into shape and broken in while her sister sleeps.

All night long, it will creak a little between mattress and box spring. With every breath, the leather will surrender a little more. To the little girl, this is the best way to break in a new baseball glove. Slowly, by a big sister in her sleep.

"How long will it take?" the little girl asks.

"About three years," I say.

"That's not too bad," the little girl says.

"Not bad at all," I say.

*

Chris Erskine's column is published on Wednesdays. His e-mail address is chris.erskine@latimes.com.

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