Wauchula, Florida. -- When the hubbub of life over in Avon Park sets your nerves jangling, you can drive down the undulating road to this hamlet set in the center of Hardee County, in the center of the peninsula, midway between most places. Here, far from Florida's beachfront condos and flashy tourist attractions, the Hardee Wildcats are hosting the St. Alban's Bulldogs, who are down from Washington, rounding into shape for the high school baseball season.
The night is cool but the coffee at the concession stand is hot and strong and a smattering of high school girls wearing shorts and tans and orange satin Hardee jackets glow beneath the lights. After a rocky start, this trip has righted itself.
Picture this. Since September about three dozen teen-age boys -- a critical mass of critical masses -- have put up with school and winter so they could get down here for the pleasure of eating badly and playing ball. And it has rained. They are living on donuts, pizza and, 'round about midnight, nachos from the Circle K store out on the highway that is sown so thick with fast-food joints that just a drive down it elevates your cholesterol. Furthermore, something in (or perhaps not yet in) these creatures causes them to express emancipation from parents by dropping Doritos into the retentive shag of a Days Inn motel carpet.
There are serious sides -- well, slivers -- to the trip. For example, the shortstop was sent south packing a stack of 3 x 5 cards containing SAT vocabulary words. One afternoon found him standing at a pay phone along U.S. Route 27, getting a long-distance vocabulary quiz, administered by his father, as the 18-wheelers whined by hauling oranges north.
The other night the Bulldogs were rolling, 9-1, over Avon Park's Red Devils. (An adequate name, but not up there with Toledo's Mud Hens or the old drug-company semi-pro team, the Paregorics). Then the wheels fell off. A relief pitcher found the plate moving around on him and a Red Devil homered over the best outfield fence sign in America: ''Beef and Baseball.'' (That's it. That's enough. It is put there by a local ranch that understands the two basic food groups.)
Anyway, there were eight Red Devil runs, then extra innings, before the Bulldogs won. It was a victory doubly sweet because it came on hallowed ground: Tom ''Flash'' Gordon of the Kansas City Royals began his ascent to glory from Avon Park's pitcher's mound.
The Bulldogs win again the next night in Wauchula. After the game the Wildcats grab rakes and restore the infield's smoothness, getting the everyday sport ready for tomorrow. The Bulldogs sprawl on the wet grass for a critique from their coach. He is wise beyond his years (26 of them) and bilingual, fluent in English and a dialect, baseball.
''We had too many backward K's tonight.'' (K is the scoring symbol for a strikeout; a backward K indicates a called third strike.) ''That is a quick way to the pine.'' (To get benched.) The reliever who got lit up by Avon Park did well tonight and is #F praised for ''getting back on the horse.'' Now it's nacho time.
''In our sun-down perambulations, of late,'' wrote Walt Whitman in 1846, ''through the outer part of Brooklyn, we have observed several parties of youngsters playing 'base,' a certain game of ball. We wish such sights were more common among us.'' Whitman didn't have long to wait.
Lincoln interceded for boys whose ballgame had been shooed off the White House lawn. The Civil War, which moved millions of young men hither and yon, acquainting them with the variety of American experiences, simultaneously spread baseball like honey across bread. It has been everywhere ever since: When Geronimo escaped from a reservation near Fort Apache, soldiers had to stop a baseball game to saddle up.
Every spring baseball brings American boys to places they otherwise would never visit, or even hear of. Some of the city boys from Washington were hauled off to see London, Paris and Florence before they were allowed to see Kissimmee, Okeechobee and Frostproof -- the music of American names! -- but I will wager they learned more of lasting value along Florida's backroads than ever they did being marched through Florence's Uffizi gallery. I know they had more fun.
For many fans this spring, the flavor of the dawning baseball season is being soured by the well-publicized tantrums of a few players at the pinnacle of baseball's steep pyramid. They are childish men who wonder aloud whether they can be ''motivated'' by a mere $2 million or so. But down at the pyramid's broad base, where baseball is perennially renewed, boys still play for the sheer exhilaration of mastering the satisfying pressures of this pretty game that they play in front of small, quiet crowds, mostly family and friends, after a scratchy recording of the national anthem and before late-night pizza back on the highway.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.