The old bullpen coach sits on a metal chair in the sun, chewing his tobacco and hollering at some young pitcher, "Hone, Babe, real good day to work." It is the most ancient of baseball's spring cries of encouragement and it comes from a man who is thinking earnestly of the day's end and a can of beer to cut the dust stuck in his throat. The thirst of the aging fielder (right), battling nature and rusty hinges for a long fly ball, is for one more major league season. For him and for the spirited rookies and the rusting citizens with memories, the first weeks of spring training are the treasured days. As seen by Artist Michael Ramus, their world is essentially young. With the harsh reality of the exhibition schedule still mindless eons away, all things seem possible.
THE BEST TIMES NEED NO REASON
To some the early days mean only the sun and rooms that rent for $38 a day, double occupancy; to others they represent the chance to soak up something more profound that will be recalled during the cool nights of September when the pennant drives catch fire and a man can sit in his easy chair and recall how the kid who is now a force in the race had looked so good to him in early March in Phoenix or Clearwater or West Palm Beach. Honest men, however, realize that a great problem of the early days is that nearly everyone looks good and that all the watchers are eventually deceived. Not many years ago The Baltimore Sun gave its readers an eight-column example on its sports pages of how boundless the initial enthusiasms can be. TRIANDOS HITS FOUR OFF IRON MIKE headlined the Sun. Iron Mike is the pitching machine.
Without paying a dime, however, a person can walk into any of the camps before the exhibition games begin and sit for two or three hours just watching the individual skills of the ballplayers. After a few visits the close observer can see some players ruining their chances of making the team by leaning their shoulder blades against the outfield fences and taking a few too many trips to the water cooler.
But the man who truly cares about his baseball will merely watch all the time-honored idiosyncrasies and never seek explanations. "We do things the way we do them," Coach Tony Cuccinello, who has been going to spring training for more than 40 years, once said, "because that is the way we do them."
Oh, NASA or IBM—or, perhaps, the National Labor Relations Board—could change a lot of things about spring training, technologically speaking, and make them better, but they would not really be. The catching equipment comes onto the field in a wheelbarrow, the batting-practice balls are placed beside the pitching mound in a plastic laundry basket or a supermarket shopping cart and the shrewd coach loops miles of rubber bands around his fungo bat to put more spin on grounders. The chewing tobacco and bubble gum sit side by side on a small table in the clubhouse, not as representations of a generation gap, for Willie Mays chews bubble gum and Tommy Helms "chaws." They are there because they always seemed to have been there.
Losers of the year before try every form of new device while the winners stand pat. The pitchers will not be able to bunt any better in the early days than they do when the pressure is on them in August, and all a manager can do is make them try all over again.
Aaron and Oliva, Yastrzemski and Clemente will produce a different sound of bat meeting ball than the bad hitters, a kind of "pop" that experienced ears will hear. The roar of Leo Durocher will be louder during this time than at any other as he teaches the youngsters his way. The boy-man who dares defy him will be, in the Lip's loud words, long gone. This spring there will be four new teams: the Seattle Pilots, Montreal Expos, San Diego Padres and Kansas City Royals and, in frustration, one manager may address his aspirants with the same words Casey Stengel once used on his young Mets. "Gentlemen, this is a baseball!" To which, Choo-Choo Coleman, because this was baseball and tradition had to be respected, replied with the hoary, "Hey, Skip, aren't you rushing us a little?" Ask anyone who has been around the camps and he will tell you the early days are the best.