VERO BEACH, Fla. -- Up early in Fort Lauderdale, point the rental car north on I-95, five lanes stacked up around Palm Beach, radio chattering about the chances of baseball coming to Miami. Eighty degrees by 9 o'clock. A Picasso-blue sky, not a single cloud. Cowabunga.
A hundred miles to Dodgertown and the first person I see, I swear it, is Tommy Lasorda riding along in his golf cart, "Tommy" written across the front. Actually, the first person I see is a 75-year-old traffic cop, plaid shorts, dark socks, wraparound sunglasses, telling me where to park. Somebody's grandfather. Then Lasorda. In uniform hours before the game. In a hurry. Stopping, shaking hands with a kid.
Dodgertown: The perfect spring-training postcard. Four emerald fields. Minor-leaguers in old blue jersies gathered in clusters here and there, throwing, running. Palm trees and a golf course
around the little stadium, handwritten signs on wire fences. Gates Open at 11. Please Be Alert. From the days of rackety window units, black-and-white TV, Nat King Cole.
The Orioles' bus sputters through the gate late-morning. Actually the Orioles' buses, players on one, coaches on another, three weeks on the suckers every day and another 10 days to go, the sum of it not helping anybody's back or disposition. The Orioles: Baseball's Road Map Kings. The O (Give Them a Home)'s.
The visitors' clubhouse sits out beyond right field, a shame, a sham, 35 players crammed into a room not fit for a junior-high team. Sandwiches, bananas and juice lying on a table outside the door. Players slip into their orange jerseys, gray pants, wander into the yellow-white sunshine, watch from the grassy bullpen as the Dodgers take batting practice.
My first view of them. First spring sightings. Sam Horn: Thinner. Randy Milligan: Relaxed. Glenn Davis: Maybe the most pleasant man on the planet. Larry Sheets? That kid over there, must be Luis Mercedes. "The best player in camp," I am told by an O-knowitall. Prediction: He will be the first Oriole to bat in the new stadium. (In other words, the leadoff man in 1992.)
A page of updated spring stats is passed around, presenting a challenge for even the most devoted Rotisserie pinhead. Austin, Chance, Eberle, Lofton, Robbins -- they all batted for the Orioles this spring, but who are they? More to the point, where are they now? It happens every spring. They come and they go.
Frank Robinson sits inside the dank, low-hung clubhouse, our genial host, his mood good. Camp to date has been one long bus ride, but not without merit. Not all, but some, of January's questions have been answered. Milligan will be the left fielder. There is a leader in the third-base race. Jeff Ballard is back in the rotation. Mike Flanagan may be, too. (Yes, it's possible.)
The Great Moose Experiment has been the front-burner item, of course, and it appears the news is in. He isn't all smooth, rounded edges yet, but he is making the basic plays, not looking bad at all -- and hitting a ton, too, another homer yesterday, three in the past week. For his bat, it's enough defense. "I'm satisfied he'll be able to play out there," Robinson says.
At third, where Craig Worthington and Leo Gomez are staging a win-or-get-outta-town, no one is saying much, but it's not a difficult read. Gomez can hit, but has been something of an adventure afield. Worthington's glove is more dependable, so it's his position if he can hit as well as Gomez -- and he is hitting now, up over .350 for the past week with a homer yesterday. Write his name in, in pencil at least.
And then: Ballard. He had his first poor outing yesterday, threw a very bad pitch to Eddie Murray -- oh yeah, him. Ballard is the biggest story of this camp. If he returns to anywhere near his 1989 form, the rotation plays fair with any team in the division. (As for Flanagan, who hasn't allowed a run in 12 innings -- Robinson wants it to happen. We'll see.)
Still plenty of unanswered questions, of course. The last two spots in the rotation and bullpen. Whether Bob Melvin and Chris Hoiles can handle the catching. Whether Dwight Evans can play in the outfield, or play at all. No, it isn't a sure thing.
No answers yesterday. A volley of hits -- 17 runs, for crying out loud -- but no answers other than another 375-foot argument for Worthington. A long, slow sunburn of a day, Evans off, Vin Scully's butterscotch purr on the radio, the umps making bad calls by the eighth inning to end the thing. The Beach Boys and "Margaritaville" on the public address.
In the end, after 26 runs and three outs in the last of the ninth, the place clears out, the sun comes in low over the tall trees, Lasorda takes off his cap and waddles out to shortstop to show a couple of kids how to field grounders. James Taylor all mellow over the public address, "Fire and Rain," a couple hundred hangers-on waiting out the traffic, watching the kids trying to get the knack. The Orioles back on their buses, rolling down the road. They come and they go.