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The Roots of Spring

There is thesense that in spring training baseball is more the game it was meant to be. Itis then that baseball is removed from all those coliseums with chemical playingfields and transported again into the snug wooden ball yards where it can moveat its own resolute pace. Most of the new parks were also designed toaccommodate football, a game of compulsive urgency; but intimacy, not urgency,is baseball's charm, and in those purposely colossal structures the game seemsanomalous, a little like Parcheesi played on a crap table.

Reflections suchas these are considered blasphemous by the baseball Establishment. Nothing sounnerves a baseball person as the suggestion that his game is not fast enoughto keep up with the times. And yet, Chub Feeney, president of the NationalLeague, has acknowledged that "ours is a game of suspense, of buildingtension, not continuous action." Suspense is best communicated throughproximity, but unfortunately you do not attract two million customers playingin a facility that seats 15,000, nor do you earn $200,000 per summer throwingcurveballs before such a chummy congregation. For better or worse, a game thatis probably best enjoyed when played on a vacant lot before family and friendsis now consigned to futuristic palaces with wall-to-wall carpeting.

Still, baseballcannot wholly shuck off its homespun image, for spring training is always thereto show just how satisfying the game can be in the proper surroundings. Notthat Florida or Arizona can be considered traditional baseball country or thatthe game as played there in the spring approximates midseason competence. Theveteran players are in no great haste to put the hard edges on their softenedbodies and the rookies are too frequently the victims of their own anxieties.In this atmosphere, the undeserving frequently rise to the top, only to sinkswiftly once the regular season has begun.

But you can seethe players in spring training. You can see up close what they look like, readtheir expressions, catalog their movements, analyze their styles. You can alsosee them off the field if you are shrewd enough to station yourself near theswimming pools, coffee shops and golf courses where, in the gaudy raiment thatpasses now for fashion, they may be seen whiling away the off hours. Adiscerning fan can learn more about his team watching a week of spring trainingthan he can in a full season of squinting at it from the third deck of somesuperdome.

Three springtrainings ago my son Peter, then 12, was loitering poolside at the Caravan Innin Phoenix when the San Francisco Giants' much-publicized new power hitter,Dave Kingman, suddenly appeared before him. Kingman was creeping up on a younglady of his acquaintance who, oblivious to his menacing approach, was seated inan ironwork chair reading a paperback novel. Kingman, who stands 6'6" andweighs 210, grasped the chair, hoisted it nearly to eye level and dumped itsfrightened occupant, novel and all, into the pool.

Watching thisincident, my boy learned much about life, baseball and Dave Kingman. He learned1) that Kingman was as strong as an ox and, therefore, had unusual potential asa Giant slugger, 2) that he was of a playful, even sophomoric, nature and 3)that since the dunked person seemed more amused than outraged by the indignitythrust upon her, Kingman probably had a winning way with women, a perceptiononly dimly appreciated at the time by one of such tender years and shelteredupbringing. The boy now entertains his contemporaries with a recounting of thisepisode and is working toward the time when he can duplicate Kingman's feat,unmindful, perhaps, that in the intervening years the attitude of young womentoward such high jinks may have changed drastically.

There are thingseven a more seasoned observer can learn from spring training. Until this year,when a worsening economy forced curtailment of such extravagances, the Giantshad always entertained the press and assorted hangers-on after spring games ata free bar in the Governor's Room of the Caravan Inn. "Pheenoms," thoserare flowers that bloom only in the spring, were discovered therenightly—"Man, what a curve-ball. A new Koufax"—and the fading past wasgiven a fresh coat of paint. The bullfrog voice of a septuagenarian Giantscout, Tom (Clancy) Sheehan, boomed through the window and carried to thepoolside tables where young ballplayers entertained the local girls on warm,sensual evenings:

"Ain't nobodyhad the control old Alex had. Didn't walk a man 'cept on days when he'd had afew. I remember one game that got started late. The club had to catch a trainin about an hour and a half. 'Don't need to worry 'bout a thing,' Alex said.'We'll catch that train.' He threw nothin' but strikes and got that game overin an hour. Takes these guys that long to walk out to the mound."

The old are apart of spring training. The Milwaukee Brewers even play their games in aretirement community, Sun City, where the fans are driven to the ball park inelectric carts. But the young are there, too, languishing in the sun, shirtsand blouses off, slugging beer. Baseball is not so much catching up with thetimes as the times are slowing to meet it. Continuous action can be tiring.

So the gameemerges again from hibernation in the temperate zones, reviving itself foranother long pull. It is coming to life again, yes; but in those old ball parksand on living grass before people seemingly no more than an arm's length away,it is also rediscovering its roots. And that is only as it should be.