Early Birds in action: where to catch them

Baseball: For fans who just can't wait, spring training is just around the corner. Here's where you can see the Orioles work out the kinks.

January 30, 2000|By David Michael Ettlin | David Michael Ettlin,SUN STAFF

The names do not exactly leap off the tongue: Buddy Groom and the Chucks. Sounds like a strange musical combo. But Buddy and the Chucks -- McElroy and Trombley -- are new, recently signed Oriole relief pitchers.

Baseball fans will have a month to get acquainted with them, along with new manager Mike Hargrove and other new and future Birds come early March when spring training gets under way.

The newcomers will be putting on a show, along with the better-knowns like Ripken, Anderson, Belle and Mussina -- as the Baltimore Orioles take the field for a 29-game spring training schedule that gives good reason to fly south.

The first 27 of those games will be played in the Sunshine State -- 14 of them at the Orioles' spring training home of Fort Lauderdale -- before the team wings north for two final exhibition games, against the Braves March 31 in Atlanta and the Cincinnati Reds April 1 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Tickets are available now by advance purchase for most games, but as March draws near, that may not be the case. Spring training is growing in popularity in most Florida towns serving as preseason homes to major league teams, but particular teams or star players seem to be the determining factors in games selling out.

Plan ahead if you want to see the St. Louis Cardinals and home run king Mark McGwire anywhere they play. But don't be surprised if McGwire doesn't set foot on the playing field -- star players may not make every road trip or appear in every game.

Last year, McGwire appeared in two of the three Cardinal games against the Orioles played at Fort Lauderdale -- missing the last one, whose sellout crowd of 7,608 was the largest in the Orioles' four years there.

The Orioles' Cal Ripken, like McGwire, is another big draw, particularly on the road, where fans have fewer opportunities to see him. An indicator of this may be the average spring training attendance last year of 6,071 at home, and 7,729 on the road.

But coming off back surgery, Ripken may be harder to find, especially in the early days of March as he eases into a playing routine.

Orioles' spokesman Bill Stetka says visiting teams are required to have at least four of their regular offensive players at road games -- even on "split squad" days when the roster is divided between games at two locations.

And when a team has at least two scheduled trips to any of the road destinations, nearly all of the regulars will appear in at least one of the games, he added.

Better enjoy driving

For those interested in seeing the Oriole organization's young talent, games early in the schedule -- before some players are sent off to the minor league camp in Sarasota -- may be most appealing. But the fans had better enjoy driving, because the Orioles alternate home and away games along a 160-mile stretch of Florida's Atlantic coast from March 3 to March 9. That first week includes the team's lone visit this year, on March 6, to the fan-friendly Vero Beach home of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Last year, it was easy to find the Dodgers' beloved ex-manager, Tommy Lasorda, in the lower box seats near third base, behind the team's bench. But those with Bird-blood running in their veins also will likely seek out Dodger coach and ex-Oriole catcher Rick Dempsey, or the current Dodger and ex-Oriole manager (and second-baseman) Davey Johnson.

I brought home a keepsake signed by Dempsey and Johnson -- a souvenir I show off as my "Orioles' mistakes" baseball. (One might recall, or maybe not be able to forget, that the Orioles released Dempsey in 1992 in favor of Jeff Tackett as backup catcher.)

This year, ex-Oriole Dodger players are pitchers Gregg Olson, Alan Mills and Kevin Brown.

Among the features unique to Vero are the path and footbridge linking the "Dodgertown" training facilities and practice fields -- and fan parking areas -- to intimate Holman Stadium, built in 1953. There is no enclosed dugout for the players, who bake in the sunshine just in front of the fans baking in the nearest seats.

Postgame access to the visiting team is limited because players and club officials quickly depart by bus, but the Dodgers walk with the mortals back across the bridge.

On my visit, Lasorda left the game around the sixth inning, apologizing to autograph-seekers on the open-air concessions promenade that he had a pressing engagement.

He was spotted after the game coaching young minor leaguers through a workout on a back field. Although the area was roped off, fans waited and watched from a distance until Lasorda was done. Their patience was rewarded when he got out of his golf cart near a fan-lined walkway, chatted amiably and signed autographs for everyone.

The Dodgers have trained in Vero Beach for 52 years, but the future is uncertain. Because ownership has changed in recent years, there has been talk of the Dodgers moving to Arizona, switching from the preseason Florida "Grapefruit League" to the "Cactus League."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.