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Little boys’ game is big business

Albany Herald Guest Columnist Loran Smith

Albany Herald Guest Columnist Loran Smith

Little boys play baseball when it is fun for everybody. While immature exuberance often goes over the top with some parents, the most fun for the little guys comes when the game is over, nobody is bent out of shape with regard to who wins or who loses, and there is pizza and ice cream for everybody.

Little boys, however, grow up. They learn to be serious about playing games, especially when they discover they might be good enough to play the game for a living, but when money becomes a primary motivator, attitudes are influenced immeasurably.

With the proliferation of television and expansion of the major leagues, minor league baseball began to lose its prominence years ago. All big league officials, former players and media experts agree, however, there are more good baseball players today than ever before. They start young and play more games than they did in the old days when players had to work a job and play baseball on the side.

Baseball’s heyday followed World War II when every town across the country had a baseball team. I can remember Class D baseball as a boy, one who had difficulty making arrangements to watch the hometown team in action. Didn’t have the 35 cents for a ticket. There wasn’t a lot of encouragement from a father who observed the dark side of the game. He had heard that the players, who stayed at the Frost Hotel in Wrightsville, were given to boozing it up after games.

He could find a better use for his 35 cents, like earmarking all loose change for the grocery budget. If the local stars were on the Devil’s side, drinking and cussing and spitting tobacco juice, as baseball players are wont to do, he wanted no part of the game.

Those shortcomings were something foreign to me. I just wanted to see the action. As time went by, I wondered what it would be like to see a big league game, concluding that the box scores in the newspaper would be as close as I’d ever get.

Each spring when I come to Florida and visit a few of the big league camps, I cannot refrain from remembering the past when I would have succumbed on the spot if you had told me that I’d be able to see any game that time and schedule permitted. A media pass with parking privileges, conversations with managers and players, seeing the ol’ timers like Yogi Berra hanging out at Legend’s Field in Tampa! What a Hallelujah experience that would be!

Recently when I walked into the Red Sox’ new spring training complex “JetBlue Park at Fenway South,” a replica of the stadium in Boston at Brookline Ave., Jersey, Van Ness and Landsdowne Streets, I was fascinated once again at how much spring training means to baseball fans. The games don’t mean anything, but the game still has that All-American appeal. You can see it on the faces of the fans, who flock to intimate 10,000-seat stadiums and relax with a hotdog and a beer in the sun.

For years most of the big league teams trained in Florida. Today, exactly half of the teams train here and the other half in Arizona. In the beginning, Florida had to underwrite the cost of spring training to get teams to come south. Now spring training has become a profit center for the teams. A hot dog and a Coke cost just under $10 at the Braves’ classy complex at Disney World. Baseball, like all sports, has become a corporate alliance or the domain of those who belong to the high-end income fraternity.

Baseball is different now and the players and attitudes have changed, but the crack of the bat in the sunshine this time of the year is an American tradition that we won’t let go. Unless greed takes over.

Loran Smith is affiliated with the University of Georgia and can be reached via e-mail at loransmithathens@bellsouth.net.