Rites of a Sweet Season

updated 03/28/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/28/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

The crack of the bat on the ball. The thump of the ball in the glove. These are harbingers of spring as lyrical as any bird song. For a baseball fan, spring training is the sweetest time of the sweet season—a chance to get as close to the game as any nonplayer will ever get. In the cozy little ballparks of Florida and Arizona—which hold 6,000 expectant souls rather than 60,000—baseball has the look and sound of the game's beginnings, a leisurely contest in the returning warmth of the sun. For players too, this is a dreamy time when the game is still a game. There are no league standings yet. No pennant race. No slumps to turn the season sour with anger and fear. Players are parents now; they bring their children to practice. And they remember what it is to be children themselves. "Starting in January you get your glove down in anticipation," says Ray Knight, the Detroit Tigers' in fielder. "Then you get down your bats. You're a little boy again in spring training." Here are some entries from a preseason journal that captures some of that feeling.

Al Lang Stadium, St. Petersburg.

It's the top of the second Winning and the St. Louis Cardinals are leading the White Sox 6-0. You can hear Tommy Walton well before you see him. From deep within the stadium, a voice booms, "He-e-e-r-e's Tommy!" and then, suddenly, he appears on a ramp amid the box seats behind home plate, a tall, reedy man of 57 who bills himself as the "World's Greatest Singing Hot Dog Salesman." As the stands erupt in applause, Walton, a sonorous baritone, breaks into "East Side, West Side" and the crowd sings along. Then he gets down to serious selling. "Don't be a meanie," he instructs one reluctant customer, "buy a weenie." To a young god sunning his Rambo-like torso, he cries, "Quiche, cheese sandwiches, hors d'oeuvres!" Then comes the unfailing knee slapper: "Ice cold hot dogs here!"

In the 14 seasons that he's been with the Cards, Walton has become a spring training institution. In fact, earlier this season, when the Mets moved to their new stadium at Port St. Lucie, they tried to take Tommy with them. "But I got my start here," says Tommy, who originated his singing sales pitch on his father's mule-drawn vegetable wagon in St, Petersburg. "Besides," he adds, "the Cardinals offered me more money to stay."

Walton breaks into song again. "Oh, what a beautiful mornin'..." Corny, yes, but disarming. When the sun is hot on your neck, when you've had a couple of cold ones and Tommy launches into "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," your cynicism falls away. You sing along.

Plant City Stadium, Plant City.

Pete Rose—manager of the Reds and perpetual boy of summer—is supervising an early morning workout. "Way to pick it!" he shouts as his shortstop makes a nifty grab. "That's a knock!" cries Rose, as outfielder Eddie Milner bounces one up the middle. Knock is baseball parlance for hit. And Rose, of course, is the prince of knocks who dethroned former record holder Ty Cobb with 4,256 hits in his 24-year major-league lifetime. But Rose hasn't swung a bat in anger in nearly two years. "I doubt very much I'll play anymore," he says. Yet he will not go gentle into the Hall of Fame—there to join the men, present and departed, whom baseball chooses to call its immortals. "Retire?" He bristles at the very suggestion. Rose may be 46, and noticeably heavier in hock and jowl, but he's not ready to traverse that psychological barrier. "I feel like I'm still in the damn game because I'm managing," he says. Besides, "I'd like to keep the door open just in case something unforeseen happens." Like Ponce de Leon happening upon the Fountain of Youth. Although he no longer takes batting practice, Rose won't play in old-timers games because, he points out irrefutably, "They're for old-timers." When asked under what circumstance he might officially hang it up, Rose becomes thoughtful. "Maybe if you told me I wasn't going to have this uniform on next year," he says. Rose runs with the fantasy now. "Yeah, it might be nice to retire and have a Pete Rose Day." Then, ever mindful of his position in the game, he adds, "Or how about a Pete Rose Month?"

Fort Lauderdale Stadium, Fort Lauderdale.

Welcome to the Yankee camp! Déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra might say, if he were still here to say it. Billy Martin is back for his fifth go-round as manager. Back too are the Yanks' pitching problems. They simply don't seem to have enough, unless you count rookie lefthander Al Leiter—which the Yankees certainly do. "I'm the hot prospect," laughs the good-natured 22-year-old whose fame has preceded him so inefficiently that someone else's picture appears on his baseball card. Up for a brief trial last September, Leiter made a case for himself with his 94 mph fastball and 28 strikeouts in only 22 2/3 innings. All he seems to lack is experience. "The arm is there," Billy Martin has said. "We're working with his mind."

Uh-oh. Still, if any kid can withstand such ministrations it's probably Leiter. He's got a nice sense of humor about himself. ("I threw the ball hard last year," he tells people. "I just didn't know where it was going all the time.") Plus he's got an acute sense of Yankee psychohistory, having grown up in Pine Beach, N.J., watching the Bronx Zoo—and its principal keeper, team owner George Steinbrenner—at fascinated close range. "You've just got to relax and do your job," says Leiter, stating his bare-bones survival philosophy. Maybe he should consider the example of Don Mattingly, perhaps the finest player in baseball, who decides to take an extra half-hour of batting practice as the Yankees warm up to face Atlanta. It is a moment of found poetry for anyone who wanders past the cage behind the left-field stands: Mattingly, bathed in sweat and grunting with each swing, seems to be in a trance. "Uh! Don't go up there," he tells himself after lunging for a high pitch. "Uh! Just missed it.... Uh! A bit off.... Uh! Pulled off it.... Uh! There we go.... " Ten feet away, baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth stands utterly transfixed by this vision of perfection perfecting itself. As for Mattingly, he sees nothing but the little white ball.

Dodgertown, Vero Beach.

To promote international amity, the Los Angeles Dodgers have invited Aleksandr Ardatov and his assistant, Guela Chikhradze—the coaches of the Soviet National Baseball Team—to Vero Beach, on the east coast of Florida. Already the two have overcome vast cultural barriers. "The term screwball was confusing at first," says Ardatov, 29. "In the dictionary at home it means an insane person."

Back home in the U.S.S.R., baseball is in a pre-embryonic state. The Soviet baseball federation is only a year old. There are 20 organized teams, perhaps a thousand players. The best pitcher in the Soviet Union—an ex-javelin thrower—has a 70 mph fastball, as clocked on a radar gun borrowed from the Moscow traffic police. That's pathetic by major-league standards, according to which "fast" means at least 85 mph. But baseball becomes an Olympic sport in 1992, and the Russians have dreams of hegemony. "We can compete in seven years," says Ardatov. "Perhaps in 10 years we will win."

Never mind that Ardatov, a onetime hockey goalie, has only been playing baseball for two years. Or that Chikhradze, a master fencer, has played only a few games. The two are full of good, old-fashioned, socialist can-do spirit. At the moment, Dodger coach Bill Russell and assistant Joe Ferguson are trying to teach them how to turn the double play. The problem: Aleksandr throws like, well, like a girl. But since that description could be construed as rank chauvinism, at least in the U.S., Ferguson tells him he's "shot putting" the ball. "First you step down with your front foot," he explains gently, "then you throw." Ardatov nods. "Moscow wasn't built in a day," he says. "I am patient." Then he boots a ground ball. Then he misjudges a pop-up. "On the surface," he says with a sigh, "this game seems so easy."

Lakeland, Florida.

The boys' game played by men—like most boys' games—has a cruel side. Consider the case of Ray Knight, 35, husband of golfer Nancy Lopez. In his 10 seasons in the majors, Knight has played for the Reds, the Houston Astros and the New York Mets. Last year he was third baseman for the Baltimore Orioles. "I was really looking forward to spring training and seeing my teammates," says Knight. "Understand that ballplayers are like a covey of quail. They're really close during the season. After it's over, they go their own ways." Besides, Knight was ready—his life was in order. Managing two demanding careers and two little daughters requires a lot of planning, and this year Knight and Lopez had taken special care. "Nancy wants to re-establish herself as number one this year," says Knight. "To do that she has to play a lot. We'd planned her whole year around the Orioles schedule."

But Knight barely had time to suit up and say hello to all the guys at the Oriole camp in Miami when general manager Rollie Hemond asked for a word with him. "He sits down beside me," says Knight, "and he says, 'Ray, good to see you. I just wanted to tell you you've been traded to the Tigers.' " For awhile Knight just sat there, stunned, the odd quail out. Then, still in his Oriole uniform, he went to call Nancy. "When I told her," he says, "she started to cry." But then she pulled herself together and said, "Let's go. Let's get packed." So they loaded their 12 suitcases, scooped up their two little girls and set out for a new life and new schedule in Detroit. "It's funny," says Knight of his five-team hegira. "I give my heart every day. I've never felt appreciated. But I've never been bitter. I still love the game."

Scottsdale, Arizona.

No citrus groves here, only cactus. No white sand beaches, just desert, scrub and the occasional hill. If spring training in Florida is an intimate affair, it seems even more so in Arizona. There are just eight teams here, and they play each other over and over. Somehow, here the game is even more gamelike.

Thus far, the talk of the Cactus League has been the Oakland A's lineup of sluggers—chief among them the Herculean first baseman Mark McGwire. The A's beat the Giants today 8-5, and McGwire hit two homers, including a titanic 450-foot shot over the centerfield scoreboard. It is the opinion of seasoned onlookers that anything that travels that far through the air ought to carry a stewardess. The next stop on the Cactus League's itinerary is the Pink Pony, Scottsdale's legendary watering hole. As usual, the ravening horde is three deep at the bar. The drinks are lethal and the steaks are prime, but the real attraction here is baseball. For the six weeks of spring training, the Pony is simply the greatest baseball hangout in the land—a sort of big-league Elaine's. On hand tonight are former National League president Chub Feeney, the Oakland A's Bill Rigney, and dozens of scouts, front-office types and sportswriters. Broadcaster Harry Caray has a reservation, and the regulars include the likes of Bob Uecker, Leo Durocher and baseball's Boswell, the New Yorker's Roger Angell.

The courtly 72-year-old gent down at the end of the bar nursing a Bud is Charlie Briley, the owner of the place. Some 30 years ago, he became friends with Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean, then a broadcaster. "That's how it started," says Briley. "Baseball people started coming in." The walls are covered now with memorabilia: Willie Mays's uniform shirt, a host of World Series bats, vintage photographs of players great and dimly recalled. Just now, Briley is going through a packet of old photos he found today in his storeroom: himself with Durocher, with Ted Williams, Rogers Hornsby, Ty Cobb. Cobb was a regular too, a man who burned with competitive fire. "A sad man, a lonely man," says Briley. "When he came in—always alone—I'd sit with him." Randy Travis, the country singer, comes in. Briley barely notices. Baseball is a time machine, and it has taken Briley back to the night a few years ago when he had five Hall of Famers in his bar at one time—Bob Lemon, Lou Boudreau, Eddie Mathews, Ernie Banks and Mickey Mantle. Then he remembers the night a lady cop came in, handcuffed him to a chair, took off all her clothes and started prancing around. In fact, that was no lady and that was no cop; she was an ecdysiast hired by Billy Martin. Just a little prank to celebrate Charlie's 70th birthday.

"I'm probably the happiest guy in the world," Briley says. "After Christmas when I was a boy I used to cry sometimes. My mother would ask me why, and I'd tell her, 'Because it's a whole year till next Christmas.' And that's how I feel about spring training. When it's over, I want to cry." But at least Charlie can console himself with the gift that spring training always leaves behind, infinite in its hope and its promise—another still-green season of baseball.

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