In Florida, it's baseball the old-fashioned way Rites of Spring

March 06, 1994|By Jim Abbott | Jim Abbott,Orlando Sentinel

America's favorite pastime has undergone a dramatic evolution in the last few decades. While the game may not have changed all that much, its surroundings have. Plastic grass has gradually been replacing lushly groomed outfields; small, intimate stadiums have given way to monolithic domes built to accommodate a growing number of fans.

But during spring training in Florida, there are still places a baseball purist can go to catch a glimpse of how baseball was experienced in the 1940s and '50s -- when fans sat elbow-to-elbow on long benches in tiny stadiums, near enough to the field to smell its freshly cut grass.

Each March in Florida brings a four-week rite of spring -- six weeks for die-hards who watch two-week opening workouts which began earlier this month -- that bridges generational boundaries. Glance down an aisle at a spring-training game and you'll likely see fathers and young sons sitting next to college students on spring break or old-timers who once may have come to the same park to watch Joe DiMaggio or fellow Hall-of-Famer Stan Musial take a swing at a curveball.

Is it heaven? For baseball fans it is.

The spring-training games of the 20 teams that practice in Florida are more intimate than the games played after the season begins and pennant races start, says Joe Costello, an Orlando resident who is a veteran Florida ballpark wanderer. "The players are not as uptight as during the season, and I think you see a little bit truer fans."

During the last 10 years, Mr. Costello had made pilgrimages to most of Florida's spring-training sites. Like many fans, he prefers stadiums with a nostalgic feel over multimillion-dollar complexes, such as the ones built for the Boston Red Sox and the Minnesota Twins in Fort Myers.

"As a kid growing up, you remember spring training as a time when you could get next to the players," says Mr. Costello, who calls the new sites "fortresses" because they separate players from fans by too many walls and fences.

Mr. Costello's favorite stop is Dodgertown, the Los Angeles Dodgers' venerable 450-acre training site in Vero Beach. Streets there are named for former players, and during games at Holman Stadium, fans can catch the fragrant scent of orange blossoms that waft in from nearby groves. The stadium opened in 1953, but Dodgertown has been under development since 1948.

Since then, it has evolved to include not only the stadium but a year-round conference center, two golf courses, offices for Dodgers' on- and off-field operations and the nearby Dodgertown Elementary School. Despite development, the

leisurely pace of springtime baseball lingers.

A heavenly place

"It's like heaven going there for spring training," Mr. Costello says.

At Dodgertown, players don't sit in dugouts but on benches under the warm sunshine. Mr. Costello remembers the days when there were no fences in the outfield, and fans would watch the action from the grass beyond the field. If a batted ball happened to roll among them, it was still considered to be in play. There are fences now, but fans still bring blankets and folding chairs to sit on the grassy berms beyond the outfield fence of the 6,500-seat stadium.

Mr. Costello offers a word of advice about taking in a game at Holman: Bring a hat if you're going to be sitting on the first-base side -- the afternoon sun can be brutal.

You probably won't see many celebrities in the stands at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Fla., where the Detroit Tigers hold spring-training court. But you'll be sitting among some of the most ardent fans anywhere.

Fans from Detroit who follow their team to the 1960s-era beige, concrete-block stadium are known as the most devoted of the season. The Tigers have been in Lakeland since 1934, and have played at Marchant since 1966.

"It's kind of the same situation that the [Boston] Red Sox had in Winter Haven, [Fla.], before they moved," says Woody Hicks, assistant general manager for the minor-league Lakeland Tigers. lot of people relocate [to Lakeland] for the off-season just to see the Tigers, so we get a lot of fans who attend spring-training games who attend games in Detroit, too."

At the Lakeland stadium, fans can gaze over the outfield fences to watch boats bobbing along on nearby Lake Parker. During games, children cluster in the grass just beyond the left field wall, hoping to nab a home-run ball.

Fans at Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg, Fla., meanwhile, can watch the sun glinting off the waters of sailboat-speckled Tampa Bay. The site has been the spring-training home of the St. Louis Cardinals since 1938, when teams began playing on the same site in long-gone Waterfront Park. The spot is known as one of the state's most historic places in which to catch a game. Over the years, the Cardinals have shared the stadium with teams such as the New York Yankees, the New York Mets and the Baltimore Orioles.

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