Play Ball Beginning next month in Florida, baseball fans can get a preview of spring and summer's pleasures.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's all there, just as we left it in October -- hot dogs and beer, the shouts of "O!" and the pleasing sound of a laced-cowhide sphere thwacking into a leather glove.

The pain of another year without a World Series has given way to hope on yet another Opening Day.

And how about them palm trees, hon!

Welcome to the Grapefruit League and spring training -- big league baseball in tiny Florida ballparks, where giants like Cal Ripken Jr. and Rafael Palmeiro seem almost up close.

Not to say there's anything wrong with seeing a game in Baltimore's 48,876-capacity Oriole Park. It's a lovely place, and you can grow to enjoy the low-rise design and the view between the heads and shoulders of the people in front of you -- if you can even get (or afford) a ticket.

The Orioles' spring training home is Fort Lauderdale Stadium -- a hand-me-down from the New York Yankees, who had used it since 1962, before being wooed by officials in Tampa and moving last year to a plush new $17.5 million training camp and stadium there.

Fort Lauderdale's capacity is 8,340, second in size among Grapefruit League ballparks to the Yankees' new 10,000-seat Legends Field. Tickets for this year's preseason games go on sale tomorrow at prices ranging from $6 for reserved bleachers to $12 for box seats -- unchanged from 1996.

(By comparison, ticket prices for regular season games at Oriole Park have been increased this year by an average of 19 percent, with field-level box seats rising to $25. And rest assured, stadium food prices are cheaper in Florida.)

Of course, spring training games don't count in a purist sense. The statistics are not destined for the record books. But they are crucial to players vying for roster spots on Major League teams.

Alas, for them, many who take the field for this year's Feb. 27 preseason Opening Day game in Fort Lauderdale against the Minnesota Twins will be gone by Opening Day at Oriole Park on April 1 -- traded, sent to the minor leagues, or even out of baseball.

But if you care enough about the game to pursue it in Florida, who cares? The joy comes in lazing in the sunshine, getting an early taste of spring (and if you're lucky, summer) weather, watching a changing lineup of million-dollar players and young wannabes take their swings, chase fly balls and run fifth-inning wind sprints across the outfield grass.

Until this year, spring training was the only chance to see the Orioles play National League teams outside of postseason possibilities. With the introduction of interleague play in the regular 1997 season, a trip to Florida can bring a sneak preview of the O's against all five of their coming National League opponents -- the New York Mets, Atlanta Braves, Montreal Expos, Florida Marlins and Philadelphia Phillies.

And if the Orioles are not your favorite flock, there are plenty of teams to choose from in planning a Florida spring training vacation. Twenty of the 28 Major League teams can be found playing throughout the month of March in 18 cities and towns along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. (The others play in Arizona's Cactus League.)

The Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins both make their preseason home in Fort Myers on the Gulf Coast, playing in stadiums a few miles apart. The Atlanta Braves and Montreal Expos share not only a town -- West Palm Beach, on the Atlantic side -- but also a stadium, scheduling home games on different days except when they play each other.

Planning helps a lot

A little advance planning helps if you intend to follow the Orioles or other teams around the state -- like ordering tickets and reserving hotel rooms ahead of time, to avoid the inconvenience of an occasional sold-out game or to assure lodging at the best possible rate during what is also the traditional collegiate spring break.

Last year, I pursued the Orioles through their first week and caught two more games involving other teams along the way. This was seven days, eight ballparks and nine games.

The trip's costs were eased by the hospitality of friends and relatives willing to put up with a wandering baseball fan or fellow journalist for a night or two.

The few nights in single hotel rooms ranged in price from $28 outside bustling Orlando at a Motel 6 to $68 at a not-so-economical Economy Lodge in a hotel-scarce area north of Naples. Neither was reserved.

Car rentals are competitive -- perhaps nowhere more than in Florida -- and shopping around early in search of the best rates will readily turn up an air-conditioned mid-size for $160 to $200 a week, unlimited mileage.

Planning ahead helps minimize airline costs. Last year, because of procrastination, the round-trip fare from Baltimore to my jump-off point in Orlando was $272. Last month, I fairly leaped at the telephone for a Southwest Airlines special and booked a pair of round-trips to Fort Lauderdale for a total of $236, aiming to take a daughter along.

This year's first-week schedule features four of the first five games in Fort Lauderdale, and all but three mid-month games on the Atlantic side.

Orlando was convenient last year to the opening game against )) the Marlins at then-3-year-old Space Coast Stadium outside Melbourne, home of the team's minor league Florida Manatees.

The stadium, which from the outside looks more like a white-clapboard condo building than a ballpark, became visible from three miles away, its light standards rising above the scrubland where Brevard County's "new town" of Viera was taking shape. After torrential all-night rains, and with a lingering question whether the skies would ever clear, there seemed to be plenty of vacancies in the 7,200-seat park.

But the announced attendance was a respectable 6,121, and among them I found plenty of folks with the spirit of Section 34 from those magical Baltimore Memorial Stadium days. Oriole hats, T-shirts and jackets were abundant, and a good hundred voices shouted the "O" on cue during the National Anthem.

It all seemed so intimate -- fans talking with each other, even bantering with players well in earshot in a park not much bigger than the Frederick Keys' Harry Grove Stadium or the Bow Baysox' Prince George's Stadium.

Space and sport

Among them were Don and Birdie Kraus from Towson -- he a retired state employee, and she working part-time at Radebaugh Florist, taking in an O's game on a visit to her "baby brother," NASA auditor Rodney Berwanger.

"We touched the Endeavor," Birdie gushed of their trip to the nearby Kennedy Space Center.

"We're having the thrill of a lifetime," Don said, "and being so close to the players."

"You can talk to them, you can get on them, have fun with them," Rodney said. "It's half the fun of it."

The game wasn't bad, either, with the Orioles hammering the Marlins 10-1. And in an odd retrospective on a year the team would set a Major League record in home runs, the only round-tripper was a solo shot in the ninth inning by Sherman Obando -- traded two weeks later to Montreal.

Space Coast Stadium is graced by a larger-than-life bronze statue of an old-time player, an "M" on his cap, standing in the classic pose with ankles crossed and the business end of his bat touching the ground.

Many pose for photos in front of the statue, and miss its most eloquent point: On the back of the jersey is the name of the team -- not Marlins or Manatees, but "Mudville."

After the Marlins game, the first-week schedule took the Orioles "around the horn," so to speak, with games on successive days in Fort Lauderdale and along the Gulf Coast in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Fort Myers and Dunedin, and at each little baseball palace there were Orioles fans to chat with -- and not necessarily folks from back home.

In Game 2, the preseason "home opener," the Orioles beat the New York Mets 3-1, and West Palm Beach attorney Deric Tipton, 43, explained how he came to be a die-hard O's fan -- even though he has never lived anywhere near Baltimore.

Sitting in the $6 left field bleachers, above the edge of the outfield where Cal Ripken and Bobby Bonilla were running wind sprints with half a dozen other players, Tipton said, "I've been an Oriole fan since I was 7 years old. My first baseball glove was a 'Brooks Robinson.' "

He was 13 when his family moved from Georgia to Florida and they went to Oriole games at the team's preseason home, then in Miami. He said he had a complete set of Boog Powell baseball cards: "He was the only one I ever tried to collect. He was just the kind of guy who was approachable. He was a fun guy to talk to -- a guy that I liked."

Gesturing toward the field, he observed, "Great view, great seats," and drew a comparison to the closest Major League park: "I would much rather see them in a small, homey environment like this. You can talk to them, you can get to them. In a place like Joe Robbie Stadium [Miami home of the Marlins], you can't get close."

Outside the ballpark after the game, fans waited for autographs from players, and among the stars who turned up was Cal Abrams -- left fielder for the Orioles in their inaugural year of 1954, balding, wearing a hearing aid and a little slower afoot, but happy to spin a few yarns for the older fans who still remember him.

He recalled the weekly contest for "most popular Oriole," based on fans' votes, and how his home slowly filled with electrical appliance prizes as he won week after week -- only to lose out to pitcher Bob Turley in the tally for the grand prize of a new Cadillac because of what he guessed had to be a stuffed ballot box.

After dinner at a modest Chinese restaurant came a quick crossing of Alligator Alley -- a road straight through the Everglades linking Fort Lauderdale and Naples -- then a drive north along Interstate 75 to faraway Tampa, where the Orioles were to play Game 3 the next night against the Yankees.

It was the toughest drive of the trip, but left enough time for that $68 nap and an afternoon stop the next day at Port Charlotte, where the "home team" Texas Rangers were playing the Fort Myers-based Boston Red Sox.

Wacky Red Sox fans

High up in the stands of 6,026-seat Charlotte County Stadium, Nick Nicolet, bartender at the Polish National Home in Fall River, Mass., was leading the cheers and hoots in a party of four following the Red Sox on a spring training-vacation escape from jobs, wives and chillier climes.

"Every year -- baseball, drinking, partying, doing stupid things like singing karaoke," said Nicolet, 53, running off a quick string of the gazillion Polish ethnic jokes he claimed to know. "My fourth straight year. I've been to the first game in Fort Myers every year -- I'll be at the first game there every year until I die."

"I've been married 30 years and my wife looks forward to this," said buddy Ron Levesque, 49, from Atlanta and formerly Fall River, vice president of a health-information company, sitting with Daniel O'Kane, 40, a data processing company driver from Portsmouth, R.I., and their "rookie of the year," Eric Gayer, 30, a data processing company manager from Bellingham, Mass.

Nicolet showed off his Boston Red Sox Master Card. "I only use it for spring training," he said.

A member of his chorus retorted, "Yeah, it's got a limit of 45 bucks."

The Red Sox lost, 3-1, but Boston pitcher Brian Bark -- who hails from Owings Mills, and is the son of an old Baltimore public-school classmate, former minor league hurler Jerry Bark -- turned in a perfect inning in relief, retiring the Rangers' Mickey Tettleton, Dean Palmer and Rusty Greer in the fourth.

(Brian Bark, now 28, ended up in the Mets organization, pitching for the Triple-A Norfolk Tides before having arm problems and surgery. He has since finished college and moved to Florida with a new baseball job as the Mets' assistant scouting director.)

Tampa's Legends Field is New York's Yankee Stadium in miniature -- not only in the decor, but also in the field dimensions. It looks and feels like a Big League park, but with one-fifth the seating capacity -- and among the handful on this tour, it's the least informal. Ushers eagerly go about their task of making sure fans sit only in their reserved seats.

Baltimore lawyer James P. Gillece Jr. was there with his son, James Patrick III, in the middle of a four-game jaunt to spring training. "We've always wanted to do it, decided this was the year," he said, and his son, 11 then, allowed as how "I love it -- I don't think it could have gotten better than this."

Well, the seats might have been better. Gillece said they were arranged through a friend, Orioles owner and lawyer Peter G. Angelos -- but instead of being close to the field, they were many rows back from the left field line.

Yankee rivalry

How could that happen? Gillece speculated it had something to do with the rivalry between Angelos and Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.

The Orioles won 4-1, with a two-run homer by Palmeiro and three shutout innings pitched by David Wells. Who would know then how the season would end in October's playoffs, with a kid in the bleachers of Yankee Stadium stealing a ball and a game from the O's and propelling the New York squad on to an eventual World Series championship.

The next day was a double-header at neighboring St. Petersburg's 7,227-seat Al Lang Stadium, which the Orioles shared with the St. Louis Cardinals for "home" games from 1992 through 1995, a period when the O's were in search of a permanent spring training home. During my visit, the Orioles won an abbreviated "B-game" morning opener but suffered their first preseason loss to the Cardinals in the afternoon's main event, 4-1. I took as a guest my former father-in-law -- now a Florida retiree -- and enjoyed a night of his hospitality before hitting the road for the trip's last three games.

In Fort Myers, the Orioles were positively, absolutely, most sincerely crushed -- in other words, handed their feathers -- by the Red Sox, 12-0, but the day proved a terrific success anyway.

I had shied away from the daily crowd clamoring for Cal Ripken autographs in every ballpark, though I had brought along special-edition Baltimore All-Star Game and Ripken streak balls.

But here I found Brooks Robinson and Bob Feller making a joint appearance to publicize a local baseball charity event, so I dashed to the souvenir stand to plunk down $15 for an official Major League ball and secured on it a pair of Hall-of-Famer signatures.

From Fort Myers, the schedule took me back north to Dunedin, near Clearwater, for my last Orioles game -- and second baseman Roberto Alomar's first meeting with his former team, the Toronto Blue Jays. He went 3-for-3, drove in three runs and stole a base in a 14-1 victory.

Then, alas, it was time to head toward Orlando and the flight home -- but there was a chance for one more dose of baseball. A quick peek at the schedule turned up a game along the way at Tigertown, Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, preseason home to the Detroit Tigers for half a century.

Here, aside from the scheduled event of Detroit against the dTC Cincinnati Reds, the big thrill was a chance encounter under the grandstand with legendary Tigers (and one-time Orioles) broadcaster Ernie Harwell.

"I remember you doing the play-by-play with the Orioles in 1954," I told him, recalling the team's inaugural season broadcasts and the radio accounts that captivated me as an 8-year-old.

He was gracious, smiling as he said in that mellow voice, "Well, we didn't win a lot of games that year, but we sure had a lot of fun."

If you go

The O's have scheduled 15 games in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., their spring home, beginning Thursday, Feb. 27, against the Minnesota Twins, 16 "away" games at various sites, and a final preseason "home" game that really is -- back in Baltimore.

Spring training tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. tomorrow at Fort Lauderdale Stadium, by mail or fax, and through Florida TicketMaster outlets, priced at $12 for box seats, $9 reserved grandstand and $6 bleacher.

A ticket form for mail or fax orders is available at Camden Yards or by calling the Orioles at (410) 685-9800, or through the Fort Lauderdale box office at (800) 236-8908. The TicketMaster number for Broward County is (954) 523-3309.

The "away" schedule includes seven games at Municipal Stadium in West Palm Beach -- four against the Montreal Expos and three with the National League champion Atlanta Braves, who are sharing the ballpark.

Tickets for any of those games may be ordered through the TicketMaster number, or by sending a check to Braves/Expos, P.O. Box 2619, West Palm Beach, Fla. 33402-2619.

The Expos have box seats available at $12, grandstand $10 and bleachers $6, while the Braves sell individual tickets only in the $10 and $6 categories. There is a $4 handling fee for each order. (TicketMaster imposes a service charge for each ticket.)

The Orioles' other "away" game sites and ticket information for each stadium:

Los Angeles Dodgers will begin sales of individual-game tickets Feb. 1, all priced at $9, through the stadium box office at (561) 569-6858. Tickets must be picked up at the stadium.

Chicago White Sox, seats priced at $10, $8 and $5, available through TicketMaster at (813) 287-8844.

Minnesota Twins, seats at $10 and $8, available by calling (800) 33-TWINS. There is an additional handling fee of $1.75 for the first eight tickets, plus a $1.75 charge per order.

Boston Red Sox, tickets at $10 and $9, with a $2 handling charge per order, available by calling the stadium box office at (941) 334-4700.

New York Mets, tickets $10 and $8, plus a $1 handling fee per order, available through the stadium box office at (407) 871-2115.

Florida Marlins, tickets $12, $9 and $5, through TicketMaster at (407) 839-3900.

Orioles schedule

KADate.............. Opponent ..........Site .................Time

Feb. 27 ...........Minnesota ......Fort Lauderdale ....1:05 p.m.

Feb. 28 ...........Florida ........Fort Lauderdale ....1:05 p.m.

March 1 ...........Florida ........Viera ..............1:05 p.m.

March 2 ...........Montreal .......Fort Lauderdale ....1:05 p.m.

March 3 ...........Atlanta ........Fort Lauderdale ....1:05 p.m.

March 4 ...........Los Angeles ....Vero Beach .........1:05 p.m.

AMarch 5 ...........New York Mets ..Fort Lauderdale ....1:05 p.m.

March 6 ...........Montreal .......West Palm Beach ....1:05 p.m.

AMarch 7 ...........Atlanta West ...Palm Beach .........1:05 p.m.

AMarch 8 ...........Montreal .......Fort Lauderdale ....1:05 p.m.

March 9 ...........Montreal .......West Palm Beach ....1:05 p.m.

AMarch 10 ..........Atlanta ........Fort Lauderdale ....1:05 p.m.

March 11 ..........Philadelphia ...Fort Lauderdale ....7:05 p.m.

March 12 ..........Montreal....... Fort Lauderdale ....1:05 p.m.

March 13 ..........Florida ........Viera ..............1:05 p.m.

March 14 ..........Atlanta ........West Palm Beach ....1:05 p.m.

AMarch 15 ..........Los Angeles ....Fort Lauderdale ....1:05 p.m.

AMarch 16 ..........Chi. W.S. (SS) .Sarasota ...........1:05 p.m.

AMarch 16 ..........Minnesota (SS) .Fort Myers .........1:05 p.m.

AMarch 17 ..........Boston .........Fort Myers .........1:05 p.m.

March 18 ..........Los Angeles ....Fort Lauderdale ....1:05 p.m.

AMarch 20 ..........Atlanta ........West Palm Beach ....1:05 p.m.

AMarch 21 ..........New York Mets ..Fort Lauderdale ....7:05 p.m.

March 22 ..........New York Mets ..Port St. Lucie .....2:10 p.m.

March 23 ..........Atlanta ........Fort Lauderdale ....1:05 p.m.

March 24 ..........Los Angeles ....Vero Beach .........1:05 p.m.

AMarch 25 ..........Florida ........Fort Lauderdale ....1:05 p.m.

March 26 ..........New York Mets ..Port St. Lucie .....1:05 p.m.

March 27 ..........Montreal .......West Palm Beach ....1:05 p.m.

AMarch 28 ..........Montreal .......West Palm Beach ....1:05 p.m.

AMarch 29 ..........Montreal .......Fort Lauderdale ....1:05 p.m.

March 30 ..........St. Louis ......Camden Yards .......3:05 p.m.

(SS) - split squad

Pub Date: 1/19/97

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