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Spring training still a magical part of baseball season

Ask any veteran jock journalist to name his or her favorite assignment and the odds are top heavy that the answer will be 'Spring Training.'

We're not talking about the best stories here or the most important news events, let alone the most exciting journalistic experiences. But for mere precious enjoyment - just plain 'fun' - you can't beat baseball in March under the sub-tropical sun against the backdrop of swaying palms. It is simply joyful.

And so we gather once again to wallow in the lyric nonsense of it all; analyzing games that have no meaning and scrutinizing performances laden with deception. There are those who insist spring training is a 'joke', an egregious waste of time. Whenever you hear such ragtime get the dispenser's name, rank and serial number. Those who truly believe that have no soul.

Must every game be critical, every at bat life or death? Only in baseball, among all the games, is the answer even tentatively, 'No.'

Still, the evidence that the Grapefruit League ain't what it used to be grows. This is hardly earth shattering news; not in these quirky times when it begins to look like nothing is as it once was.

It's been 42 years since my first camp, which in a marvelous slice of divine good luck came with a two week paid vacation filing glowing reports from the sleepy, back-water, deeply southern town of Winter Haven where the Red Sox were at long last getting their act together at the insistence of their new drill sergeant, Dick Williams. What a way to break in! Although sometimes launching something on such a high note means you've been spoiled and it will never ever be better. In 1967, America's belief in spring training's redemptive powers and spirit of renewal was absolute.

Of course, Winter Haven is no longer in the league, no longer hosts a major league team and reverts to the same old largely ignored and utterly irrelevant town it was before the Red Sox arrived in 1966, and that is instructive. After the Sox fled to the somewhat livelier Gulf Coast the Cleveland Indians came to Winter Haven but the relationship soured in a familiar squabble between the team, seeking a better deal and more spoils, and the town, run by a gaggle of ante-bellum reactionaries. The Age of Enlightenment, you have to keep in mind, has not yet permeated all of Central Florida. So Chain O'Lakes Park hard by the sprawling Citrus Center with the bright orange roof has been dark since the Indians trudged off to Arizona a couple of years ago and it will remain so.

To Florida, which prizes spring baseball as its second most valued industry, the jilting of Winter Haven was stunning. Much more horrifying was the subsequent abandonment of Vero Beach by the Dodgers. The possibility had long been rumored and the money-grubbing ways of the new Dodger ownership were well known. And yet Florida naively continued to regard it as unthinkable on the grounds that Dodgertown at Vero Beach was a baseball shrine that the Dodgers would never dare violate by dumping. These people, remember, still live in the 19th Century.

But it is 2009, and money talks as never before and Arizona is showering it on teams in the form of sweetheart deals that are increasingly irresistible. The Dodgers now share Glendale, an oasis only lately sprung from the Arizona desert, with the Chicago White Sox, who used to train in Sarasota, and both are making a lot more money than they ever did in Florida.

As for the illustrious relic still known as 'Dodgertown,' it lies empty and unused and fading away under the withering sun. Vero Beach, an upscale watering hole reeking of wealth where the good burghers don't take kindly to being spurned, has turned its back on the game and the grand old complex where the Boys of Summer once frolicked will doubtless eventually be the site of more condos. Arizona is Florida's mortal foe and the Cactus League may not rest until it has completely overwhelmed the Grapefruit League.

In the meantime, we have lots of choice little dramas to divert us this spring although it is too bad that the so-called 'World Baseball Classic' has to muddle the scene.

In theory, the WBC has merit. The idea of developing the international game and creating new markets and establishing new talent pools has understandable appeal. 'Going global' is all the rage (or at least it was until the international economic order collapsed) and Major League Baseball under the 'enlightened' leadership of Down Town Bud Selig wants everybody to know that it's hip to it and very much in the game. Hence we have this contrived and convoluted 16-nation tourney which will dominate the rest of spring training while probably wrecking havoc with several rosters along the way.

It will probably bomb. Have you heard anyone chatting about it around the water cooler? Is it dominating conversation in the car pool or at the club? Highly doubtful! It may be all the rage in Santo Domingo, Melbourne or Caracas, but in Boston, New York and Los Angeles I would bet the ranch that they could not possibly care less. Moreover, it's hard to fathom why Major League Baseball would willingly upstage itself and compromise one of its finest moments - spring training - by pandering to the baseball fans of Tokyo, Mexico City, and Havana.

Historically, international baseball events have always been staged after the World Series and this gig would make much more sense if it were being played after the season rather than before it. But most of the other 15 nations don't want that. Just why American baseball is obliged to submit to the whims of Japan and Korea, Venezuela and Cuba when, clearly, American baseball is the event's driving force is surely not clear.

Even more important is the dreaded injury factor. With American major leaguers on all the rosters of the sweet 16 being asked to play at full tilt well before they've been whipped into playing condition the risk that's being courted is huge. The law of averages virtually demands that sooner or later a price will be paid and if it happens to a Youkilis or Pedroia, Jeter or Rodriguez there will be hell to pay.

You can safely bet on this much. There will not be a manager, G.M or owner in all of major league baseball who will not be privately rooting for the U.S. team to get eliminated ASAP. It's just another of your bad ideas, Bud. As for me, I'll be rooting for South Africa.

Along the way there are other delicious issues that will get significant play and thorny questions that will get answered, for better or worse.

Will A-Rod survive his inquisition? What dumb thing will A-Rod next do or say to make his inquisition even more intolerable?

When will the defiant Manny Ramirez capitulate to the reality of global recession? Will Agent Boras reveal his 'secret team' in the Manny negotiations to have been the Chichuchi Dragons?

Will Joe Torre be upset when his torrid confessions fail to win the Pulitzer Prize?

How soon will age, injury and doubt begin to unsettle the blissful tranquility of the Red Sox pristine training camp?

How many of the 73 free agents still unsigned as of the first of March will get jobs by the end of March? And if the answer is 'not many,' will Union boss Don Fehr file collusion charges? Or will the players fire Fehr before he gets that chance?

How many of the 103 other names on that 'secret' 2003 steroid list will get leaked and who will they be?

Will literary success spoil Jose Canseco?

What marvelous delights and surprises may we expect when the intrepid investigative ace reporter, Selena Roberts, rushes her A-Rod book to publication?

As we were saying, you just can't beat Spring Training.

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