It's all there, just as we left it in October -- hot dogs and beer, the shouts of "O!" and the pleasing sound of a laced-cowhide sphere thwacking into a leather glove.
The pain of another year without a World Series has given way to hope on yet another Opening Day.
And how about them palm trees, hon!
Welcome to the Grapefruit League and spring training -- big league baseball in tiny Florida ballparks, where giants like Cal Ripken Jr. and Rafael Palmeiro seem almost up close.
Not to say there's anything wrong with seeing a game in Baltimore's 48,876-capacity Oriole Park. It's a lovely place, and you can grow to enjoy the low-rise design and the view between the heads and shoulders of the people in front of you -- if you can even get (or afford) a ticket.
The Orioles' spring training home is Fort Lauderdale Stadium -- a hand-me-down from the New York Yankees, who had used it since 1962, before being wooed by officials in Tampa and moving last year to a plush new $17.5 million training camp and stadium there.
Fort Lauderdale's capacity is 8,340, second in size among Grapefruit League ballparks to the Yankees' new 10,000-seat Legends Field. Tickets for this year's preseason games go on sale tomorrow at prices ranging from $6 for reserved bleachers to $12 for box seats -- unchanged from 1996.
(By comparison, ticket prices for regular season games at Oriole Park have been increased this year by an average of 19 percent, with field-level box seats rising to $25. And rest assured, stadium food prices are cheaper in Florida.)
Of course, spring training games don't count in a purist sense. The statistics are not destined for the record books. But they are crucial to players vying for roster spots on Major League teams.
Alas, for them, many who take the field for this year's Feb. 27 preseason Opening Day game in Fort Lauderdale against the Minnesota Twins will be gone by Opening Day at Oriole Park on April 1 -- traded, sent to the minor leagues, or even out of baseball.
But if you care enough about the game to pursue it in Florida, who cares? The joy comes in lazing in the sunshine, getting an early taste of spring (and if you're lucky, summer) weather, watching a changing lineup of million-dollar players and young wannabes take their swings, chase fly balls and run fifth-inning wind sprints across the outfield grass.
Until this year, spring training was the only chance to see the Orioles play National League teams outside of postseason possibilities. With the introduction of interleague play in the regular 1997 season, a trip to Florida can bring a sneak preview of the O's against all five of their coming National League opponents -- the New York Mets, Atlanta Braves, Montreal Expos, Florida Marlins and Philadelphia Phillies.
And if the Orioles are not your favorite flock, there are plenty of teams to choose from in planning a Florida spring training vacation. Twenty of the 28 Major League teams can be found playing throughout the month of March in 18 cities and towns along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. (The others play in Arizona's Cactus League.)
The Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins both make their preseason home in Fort Myers on the Gulf Coast, playing in stadiums a few miles apart. The Atlanta Braves and Montreal Expos share not only a town -- West Palm Beach, on the Atlantic side -- but also a stadium, scheduling home games on different days except when they play each other.
Planning helps a lot
A little advance planning helps if you intend to follow the Orioles or other teams around the state -- like ordering tickets and reserving hotel rooms ahead of time, to avoid the inconvenience of an occasional sold-out game or to assure lodging at the best possible rate during what is also the traditional collegiate spring break.
Last year, I pursued the Orioles through their first week and caught two more games involving other teams along the way. This was seven days, eight ballparks and nine games.
The trip's costs were eased by the hospitality of friends and relatives willing to put up with a wandering baseball fan or fellow journalist for a night or two.
The few nights in single hotel rooms ranged in price from $28 outside bustling Orlando at a Motel 6 to $68 at a not-so-economical Economy Lodge in a hotel-scarce area north of Naples. Neither was reserved.
Car rentals are competitive -- perhaps nowhere more than in Florida -- and shopping around early in search of the best rates will readily turn up an air-conditioned mid-size for $160 to $200 a week, unlimited mileage.
Planning ahead helps minimize airline costs. Last year, because of procrastination, the round-trip fare from Baltimore to my jump-off point in Orlando was $272. Last month, I fairly leaped at the telephone for a Southwest Airlines special and booked a pair of round-trips to Fort Lauderdale for a total of $236, aiming to take a daughter along.