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Stepping up to the plate with the Orioles; A reporter covering the team's pre-season in Florida says it's no walk in the park. But then again, it beats working.


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Everybody wants to go to spring training, and why not? The weather is great. The setting -- at least in the relative context of professional sports in the 1990s -- is intimate. The Orioles are undefeated.

If only it were that simple.

The baseball world clings to the idyllic image of the boys of summer going through the rites of spring, but the reality of spring training in 1999 is not quite so romantic, especially when you're trying to make it look as if you're working.

South Florida may have been a tropical wonderland in the 1930s, but it is one big traffic jam now. Professional baseball used to be the fan-friendly pastime of the common man. Now, it's a big-money entertainment industry that pays its top stars upward of $10 million a year.

Baseball players used to come to spring training to get in shape. Now they have to stay in shape year-round just to lift their wallets without pulling a muscle. Kevin Brown had some baggage when he pitched for the Orioles; now with the Dodgers, he's got an armored truck.

Looking for pastoral beauty? The Orioles' Fort Lauderdale spring training complex is an aging, unattractive, industrial-strength baseball facility that stands on the perimeter of a Lear jet airfield. The sound of bat on ball is often obliterated by the roar of jet engines. Idyllic isn't exactly the word that comes to mind.

Want to meet the players? You've got to press yourself against the high chain-link fence that separates the general parking lot from the players' lot and speak through an autograph slot. If nothing else, it will give you an idea of what it must be like on visitors' day at a minimum- security prison.

OK, it's not really that bad. There isn't any frost on the ground when you wake up, Uncle Allie isn't ranting at you about PSINet from your clock radio and I'm usually inside the fence, but it's no six-week vacation, let me tell you.

My wife hates me for leaving her in the cold with the kids. My kids can't understand why they don't get to spend a month of the school year at the beach. And my office can't figure out why I'm covering baseball from a greyhound track. (Hey, I've got my reasons.)

It's spring-break time, so there are thousands of college-age women in various stages of undress and intoxication, and I'm busy stalking this big red-haired guy with 22-inch biceps and 70 home runs. How sick is that?

Of course, it's got to be better than last year, when the logistics around here were a disaster. It seemed as if you were always getting stuck behind some senior citizen in a big car, and that was just in the players' lot.

The '99 Orioles are a little bit younger and a lot more intense, so it should be a much more interesting training camp. Say what you want about Albert Belle, but don't ever accuse him of being boring. The club also added hard-nosed first baseman Will Clark, speedy second baseman Delino DeShields and every free-agent relief pitcher who could sneak past the house orthopedist. This team is going to have a 'tude.

The pitching staff can't help but be healthier. The top of the lineup should be more productive. The catching situation has been rectified.

The Orioles -- who turned a silk purse into a sour year in 1999 -- have every reason to believe that they will be back in the playoff picture this season.

That's not just the com- pulsory optimism of spring. The Orioles will be better than the team that squandered the highest payroll in baseball last year. They will be in the wild-card race all season and will be in position to take advantage if the evil Yankees stumble in the American League East, though that's probably too much to hope for.

Anyway, it's too early to worry about that. The pitchers and catchers just had their first workout yesterday. The position players don't arrive for another week.

Spring training is no vacation, but it is an occasional day at the beach. Eat your heart out.

Pub Date: 02/21/99

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