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Spring training an annual pilgrimage

Features column

Albany Herald Guest Columnist Loran Smith

Albany Herald Guest Columnist Loran Smith

If you are a baseball player, you get to wear your uniform all your life. When he quit managing the Dodgers, you still would see Tommy Lasorda in his familiar No. 2 at Vero Beach every spring-before the Dodgers lit out for Glendale, Ariz., jilting a community which had supported the team and provided limitless incentives for decades.

Spring training came to a close two weeks ago. I enjoyed another pilgrimage to Florida and had boyhood style fun reflecting on the game of baseball everywhere I went. The excitement of the spring never subsides. At Fort Myers on the other side of the state, 83-year-old Frank Malzone-bow-legged, spirited and generous with his time-walked eagerly and youthfully about the classy Jet Blue Stadium, a Fenway Park look-alike. At Disney’s Wide World of Sports, Orlando, where the Braves have trained for 15 years, Bobby Cox remained in street clothes. What would you expect from the man whose picture ought to be beside the word modesty in the dictionary? He didn’t want to be in uniform his first couple of years away from the field, making sure it would not be a distraction for his successor, Fredi Gonzalez.

When the Indians trained in Winter Haven for all those years, you would see Bob Feller, one of the fastest pitchers who ever played the game, come onto the field during batting practice, wearing his No. 19 jersey. He would be greeted with standing ovations as he began tossing a ball to anyone who wanted to play catch with one of the game’s immortals.

Half of today’s major league teams train in Arizona today and half in the Sunshine State, which offered incentives in the early days of development of Florida. Most historians agree that the coming of spring baseball took place along about 1913 when the mayor of St. Petersburg offered to underwrite team expenses up to $100 per player for any takers. Originally, it was barnstorming tours, which led to spring training. One account has it that in 1886 the Chicago White Sox were on one such tour and stopped off in Hot Springs, Ark., “to basically sober up before the start of the season.”

Still another story discloses that the old Cincinnati Red Stockings came to Florida to train with an unusual format: the players and the team would split the costs. There was a nice caveat, however: ownership and the players would share the profits. Today, big league teams make sure that spring training not only enables the manager and the coaches to determine the best players for the roster and to get the team in the best condition for the forthcoming season, they also expect to turn a nice profit.

This means that the local community, if it wants to maintain a relationship with a big league team, has to build a stadium for the team and offer other incentives that make it attractive financially. Failure to provide those incentives means that the team will relocate at the drop of a hat, especially if that hat is filled with money. That is how Arizona has attracted so many teams west in recent years. Florida in the spring is a highlight of the year for those who enjoy baseball. There is a relaxed atmosphere as the players go about their daily routines after which they take time to sign autographs.

One day here in Jupiter, Fla., following a spring workout, pitcher Adam Wainwright of Brunswick drove out of the Cardinals’ parking lot. He stopped at the exit gate and began signing autographs for a group of fans who had gathered with hopes of gaining a few signatures. He didn’t stop until he signed for every fan, including many kids. He could have been elected mayor by a landslide.

Now, the players have their game faces on for the long season. The relaxation segues into tension and pressure.

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