The bases are loaded for the Orioles, and first baseman Morgan Walker steps to the plate. In the stands behind the screen are his parents, who traveled from Texas to see his first few days in a new uniform.
Walker had enjoyed a stellar season the previous year, but father Mike -- a high school English teacher and baseball coach from the Houston suburbs -- eyes the crowded bases and confides: "This situation has not always been kind to him in the past."
As we talk about baseball dreams and sit in the bright sunshine of opening day last year, Morgan, showing patience, works the count and draws a walk. All of eight spectators are scattered in the dozen rows of the field's lone set of worn wooden bleachers at Twin Lakes Park -- not a baseball stadium, but a public park in Sarasota, Fla., leased by the Orioles as spring training home for the ball club's minor league camp.
Here in mid-March, the first games are under way on adjacent diamonds, Single-A matchups between some of the youngest prospects of the baseball organization and their Texas Rangers counterparts.
Walker batted .325 and hit 14 home runs in an 86-game season in leading the Albany-Colonie Diamond Dogs to the 1999 independent Northern League championship. And here, at 25, he is hoping to win a job on a team with Major League ties.
He is grouped with higher-level players who might end up with the Frederick Keys. On the field to the right are players who might become Delmarva Shorebirds.
The Orioles, alas, lose both games. And if the outcomes were not omen enough for the 2000 season to come, there was another Oriole team playing to a far larger and noisier crowd across Twin Lakes Park -- the age 11-12 Sarasota Little League Orioles, losing 5-3 to the rival Cardinals.
In the long haul, things also did not work out for Walker, the young hopeful from Texas.
"I hit .450 with two home runs and eight RBI's, and got released," he said recently, convinced he would have made a solid contribution in the Orioles' system.
After spending his summer back in the Northern League (.304, 13 homers, 58 RBI with the St. Paul Saints), he's done -- five years' pursuit of a career in the bigs tapped out, giving way to related interests of opening a baseball academy in Beaumont, Texas.
But the dream of Major League glory goes on for others. About two weeks after the Orioles begin Grapefruit League play March 2 on Florida's Atlantic Coast -- with many players not far removed from the minor league camp -- other young hopefuls will take the fields in Sarasota.
It happens every spring: New dreamers on old diamonds.
And for baseball fans this year, it's a chance on either side of Florida to scout out the future and soak up sunshine while, one hopes, envious friends back home are still shivering.
Spring training is work for the players, but to the fan a great excuse for a vacation. And judging by rising attendance at many of the Florida ballparks, it is growing in popularity. Tickets cost half or less of regular-season baseball prices, and the intimacy of the stadiums -- averaging less than 8,000 seats -- gives fans a better chance to say hello to favorite players or bring home an autograph.
Cal Ripken? He'll be there, count on it -- but good luck! Even in Florida, the certain Hall-of-Famer draws a long line of fans with outstretched hands holding bats, balls, hats, pictures and cards, hoping for the signature he has given so freely over the years.
Brady Anderson? No problem. Smaller line. And if you miss him before a game on the Orioles' home field at Fort Lauderdale Stadium, he's been obliging in the past, pausing on his drive out the gates afterward to sign some more.
They will be joined by plenty of new faces as the Orioles embark on a year of rebuilding with young talent. They have 31 preseason games scheduled -- 14 of them at the aging, 8,340-seat Fort Lauderdale ballpark.
Ticket prices at Fort Lauderdale are $6 for outfield bleachers, $9 reserved grandstand and $12 for box seats. They can be ordered in advance through TicketMaster-Florida at 954-523-3309, 305-358-5885 or 561-966-3309; through the Web site at www. ticketmaster.com; or by fax to the Orioles' Fort Lauderdale box office at 954-776-9116 (request the form first, by calling 954-776-1921).
By contrast, the games that will be played in the park at Sarasota are free -- but the facilities are Spartan by comparison. Bring a cushion and a picnic lunch, arrive early, and enjoy watching practice sessions -- for instance, as many as 20 infielders rotating turns at machine-fired double-play balls until their reflexes run automatically.
If you prefer to dwell on the past, you can hit the road in search of ex-O's playing now for other Major League teams whose spring training camps dot the Florida map.
Subject to trades, retirements or holdouts, here's a geographically clockwise tour for the fans of Orioles' system players past, major and minor, representing most of the 20 teams that call Florida their preseason home.