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Early Birds in action: where to catch them; Baseball: For fans who just can't wait, spring training is just around the corner. Here's where you can see the Orioles work out the kinks.


The names do not exactly leap off the tongue: Buddy Groom and the Chucks. Sounds like a strange musical combo. But Buddy and the Chucks -- McElroy and Trombley -- are new, recently signed Oriole relief pitchers.

Baseball fans will have a month to get acquainted with them, along with new manager Mike Hargrove and other new and future Birds come early March when spring training gets under way.

The newcomers will be putting on a show, along with the better-knowns like Ripken, Anderson, Belle and Mussina -- as the Baltimore Orioles take the field for a 29-game spring training schedule that gives good reason to fly south.

The first 27 of those games will be played in the Sunshine State -- 14 of them at the Orioles' spring training home of Fort Lauderdale -- before the team wings north for two final exhibition games, against the Braves March 31 in Atlanta and the Cincinnati Reds April 1 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Tickets are available now by advance purchase for most games, but as March draws near, that may not be the case. Spring training is growing in popularity in most Florida towns serving as preseason homes to major league teams, but particular teams or star players seem to be the determining factors in games selling out.

Plan ahead if you want to see the St. Louis Cardinals and home run king Mark McGwire anywhere they play. But don't be surprised if McGwire doesn't set foot on the playing field -- star players may not make every road trip or appear in every game.

Last year, McGwire appeared in two of the three Cardinal games against the Orioles played at Fort Lauderdale -- missing the last one, whose sellout crowd of 7,608 was the largest in the Orioles' four years there.

The Orioles' Cal Ripken, like McGwire, is another big draw, particularly on the road, where fans have fewer opportunities to see him. An indicator of this may be the average spring training attendance last year of 6,071 at home, and 7,729 on the road.

But coming off back surgery, Ripken may be harder to find, especially in the early days of March as he eases into a playing routine.

Orioles' spokesman Bill Stetka says visiting teams are required to have at least four of their regular offensive players at road games -- even on "split squad" days when the roster is divided between games at two locations.

And when a team has at least two scheduled trips to any of the road destinations, nearly all of the regulars will appear in at least one of the games, he added.

Better enjoy driving

For those interested in seeing the Oriole organization's young talent, games early in the schedule -- before some players are sent off to the minor league camp in Sarasota -- may be most appealing. But the fans had better enjoy driving, because the Orioles alternate home and away games along a 160-mile stretch of Florida's Atlantic coast from March 3 to March 9. That first week includes the team's lone visit this year, on March 6, to the fan-friendly Vero Beach home of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Last year, it was easy to find the Dodgers' beloved ex-manager, Tommy Lasorda, in the lower box seats near third base, behind the team's bench. But those with Bird-blood running in their veins also will likely seek out Dodger coach and ex-Oriole catcher Rick Dempsey, or the current Dodger and ex-Oriole manager (and second-baseman) Davey Johnson.

I brought home a keepsake signed by Dempsey and Johnson -- a souvenir I show off as my "Orioles' mistakes" baseball. (One might recall, or maybe not be able to forget, that the Orioles released Dempsey in 1992 in favor of Jeff Tackett as backup catcher.)

This year, ex-Oriole Dodger players are pitchers Gregg Olson, Alan Mills and Kevin Brown.

Among the features unique to Vero are the path and footbridge linking the "Dodgertown" training facilities and practice fields -- and fan parking areas -- to intimate Holman Stadium, built in 1953. There is no enclosed dugout for the players, who bake in the sunshine just in front of the fans baking in the nearest seats.

Postgame access to the visiting team is limited because players and club officials quickly depart by bus, but the Dodgers walk with the mortals back across the bridge.

On my visit, Lasorda left the game around the sixth inning, apologizing to autograph-seekers on the open-air concessions promenade that he had a pressing engagement.

He was spotted after the game coaching young minor leaguers through a workout on a back field. Although the area was roped off, fans waited and watched from a distance until Lasorda was done. Their patience was rewarded when he got out of his golf cart near a fan-lined walkway, chatted amiably and signed autographs for everyone.

The Dodgers have trained in Vero Beach for 52 years, but the future is uncertain. Because ownership has changed in recent years, there has been talk of the Dodgers moving to Arizona, switching from the preseason Florida "Grapefruit League" to the "Cactus League."

What would happen to the Vero Beach facilities? Some suggest it would be good for the Orioles, who will lose the Sarasota home of their minor league camp after this year. The Birds also are not happy with the major league camp's aging facilities in Fort Lauderdale and the travel distances for road games.

Neighbors to the Birds

The Orioles' nearest neighbors are the Cardinals and Montreal Expos, who share two-year Roger Dean Stadium and a training complex in Jupiter, an hour's drive north on Interstate 95. It is close enough that last year, I took in an afternoon Orioles game in Fort Lauderdale, and a lightly attended nightcap up the road between the Expos and Dodgers.

The Orioles have relatively long road trips on their schedule. The first, March 10, takes the team to Viera, a planned community in the Melbourne area, to meet the Florida Marlins at 6-year-old Space Coast Stadium. Then it's on to Lakeland in Central Florida March 11 to play the Detroit Tigers at Joker Marchant Stadium.

Lakeland also calls itself Tigertown -- which is understandable, considering that the Detroiters are going into their 64th year there. It is the longest relationship between any major league baseball team and a current spring training host city, and the 34-year-old stadium is named for a former city commissioner who helped bring the Tigers to town.

The game will be the Orioles' only spring meeting with the Tigers -- and one of eight games against American League teams. The Orioles play two home-and-away games with the Texas Rangers and four with the Minnesota Twins -- the "away" games with them on the Gulf Coast in Port Charlotte and Fort Myers, respectively -- and a lone home date against the Boston Red Sox.

The problem of the Orioles facing largely National League teams during spring training stems from convenience and the geography of a home base in Fort Lauderdale: All of the East Coast neighbors are National League teams, linked by I-95.

The next-closest neighbors north of Jupiter are the New York Mets in Port St. Lucie (94 miles from Fort Lauderdale), the Dodgers at Vero Beach (122 miles) and the Marlins at Viera (163 miles, and convenient to Cape Canaveral space-flight attractions).

Lakeland will be the farthest Florida trip for the Orioles in several years, at some 240 miles -- but convenient for fans interested in side trips to any of the major tourist attractions in the area. The town is located between Orlando and Tampa, and it's a quick drive to Disney World, Busch Gardens, Sea World and Universal Studios theme parks.

A three-game swing March 14-16, the longest Florida road trip, takes the Orioles to Fort Myers and Port Charlotte, and back across the state to Port St. Lucie.

But some fans might want to linger on the Gulf Coast where, beginning March 16, the Orioles' minor league games will get under way on the home field at Sarasota's Twin Lakes Park -- with Single-A, Double-A and Triple-A squads matching up with their counterparts from several nearby teams.

Minor league games at Sarasota and other sites are free -- but there's no stadium convenience. It's more like watching Little League. Seating is limited, with a small set of bleachers behind home plate on the main field, and fans have to stay out of the way.

"If you want somebody to bring you a hot dog, you're in the wrong place," says Paul Tinnell, director of player development for the Pittsburgh Pirates, whose minor league teams play in a three-week spring league with the Orioles and Cincinnati Reds, also based in in Sarasota, and the Rangers, Twins and Fort Myers-neighbor Boston Red Sox.

"When people go down there, they want to see the big-league teams," Tinnell said of the lack of spectators at the free minor league games. But for fans from Maryland -- who have minor league teams in Bowie, Frederick and Salisbury -- the appeal may be stronger.

For fans more interested in staying put and watching the biggie Birds, the Orioles' most concentrated period of games in Fort Lauderdale runs from March 17 (St. Patrick's Day) to March 21, with four games in five days. They play Texas, Minnesota and Boston, and after an open date March 20, are host to St. Louis.

Scheduled on a Sunday afternoon, the lone game against Boston March 19 could be a sellout. St. Louis, on March 21, will also sell big.

The open date is the Orioles' only day off, giving fans a chance to take in Fort Lauderdale or the beach without the distraction of baseball -- or to check the schedule and fit in a game elsewhere.

The Birds also play consecutive home games March 12 and 13 against the Mets and Dodgers, and March 28 and 29 wrap up the Fort Lauderdale schedule against Minnesota and Montreal.

A final road trip is easily the longest in mileage, as the Orioles play the last Florida game against the Cardinals in Jupiter March 30 and then fly to Atlanta and Chattanooga.

As for tickets, the Florida games are the most economical (see box), except for getting there. But planning ahead can save you money, particularly on airfares. And even though March is the heart of the college spring break period and prime time on hotel rates, it's still possible to find bargains.

The weather tends to be terrific. The chilly days that may linger through February usually diminish as March progresses -- and by the second week of spring training, it may feel more like early summer.

So let's say it, all together now: "Play ball!"

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