Spring's old excitement now is replaced, as well

March 13, 1995|By JOHN STEADMAN

Spring training, traditionally, was all about seasonal enthusiasm and how every manager spoke optimistically about his team's championship chances even if the speaker and the listeners realized it constituted a deliberate lie.

In truth, it became a time for America to lose itself in a dream or cling to a thread of hope about the future of the impending season -- be it in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Chicago or wherever your partisanship might be.

The annual ritual of getting arms and legs ready for the grind of the regular schedule was part ceremonial but by all means a necessary physical requirement, even if the practice routine was much too prolonged, in fact way overdone, and needed to be compacted.

When major-league clubs in the past assembled for workouts, in tourist retreats like Lakeland, Plant City, Bradenton and other places, it sent up an unmistakable signal of glorious rebirth across the land. You might be getting old, but it was time to reflect on whether there might be another Jimmie Foxx, Stan Musial or Hank Greenberg in this lot of bright new faces in knicker pants. It never costs anything to dream.

Baseball served as an immediate elixir, a tonic that didn't come out of a bottle but by its presence constituted a feeling of well-being. There was the presence of the southern sun, the soft breezes from the stirring palms, spiked shoes coming to grips with the plush turf underfoot and the unique sound of a ball ringing off a length of varnished ash.

It all presented a precursor to something better, a new beginning. Box scores would soon be back on the sports pages. There was this certain inner glow of rediscovery, as comes with a sighting of the first robin on a backyard fence or noting how the willows are always the earliest trees to sprout their foliage in the beguiling days of mid-March.

But this time it's different. Oh yes, the baseball candidates are in the camps even if they aren't the true professionals. But don't boo the piano player, he's doing the best he can. It's unfair to fault these so-called replacements, men of diverse backgrounds trying to take part in the show, if only for a walk-on appearance.

None of them brought on the stoppage of play or created this emergency demand for their services. Truck drivers, male nurses, bartenders, stevedores and a milk bottle-shaped pitcher, who hadn't been in the major leagues in 15 years, are part of the present cast.

But it comes through as so artificial. It's baseball but then it isn't. There's a sentiment among some visitors to the workouts that the present scheme of using the fill-ins continue, if for no other reason than to see what it's going to look like on opening day.

It will be a new experience, something that has never been seen before and, up to now, beyond comprehension.

Walter "Bud" Freeman, once an executive with the Baltimore Orioles, wonders if this means "scab pickets" will be in place. Will the carpenters, teamsters and other unions be protective of their "baseball brothers" on the line or will they ignore them the way the players have played on despite previous strikes outside parks by concession sellers, electricians and umpires?

Baseball players call themselves a union but, in reality, they aren't. They don't have a designated term of apprenticeship nor do all first basemen make the same salaries, even though they may have the same experience, which is what union tradition supposedly reflects.

The owners lied when they said 19 teams lost money in operations last year. They quickly revised it downward to 14. But, neutral economists insist the correct number is more like six -- a far cry from the fabricated total the owners used as an excuse for wanting to implement a salary cap. This touched off the strike Aug. 12 and there has been chaos ever since.

The 28 owners have lost an estimated $500 million, more than twice what the 1,100 big-league players have had to give up in aggregate income. There's a claim, which also seems grossly inflated, that Florida's normal spring training generates $300 million in tourist dollars but don't believe it; we never have.

Canadian visitors to Florida are reported down 15 percent but this is because of the state of the general economy in the dominion. Both coasts of Florida and deep into the Keys there's a heavy influx of visitors, all spending money and creating traffic on the roads, shopping malls, beaches and golf courses.

Baseball is kidding itself if it believes it is responsible for attracting crowds to Florida. Vacationers may come to a game while here, or view a practice, but baseball per se is not the major magnet. Getting to a warm place in February and March, away from snow, ice and biting winds, is the true lure inducing travelers to come follow the sun.

Back to the baseball dilemma. If the World Series, which was canceled for the first time in history, didn't mean anything to the players and the owners then why should the public worry about going to a meaningless exhibition in this spring of discontent?

Baseball, like all other sports, not as important as it's perceived, is no doubt a state of mind. If you believe, though, that it's essential to life then your mind has taken temporary leave from reality and you are in need of both sympathy and help.

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