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ISSUE 120 VOL 13 PUBLISHED 3/2/2007

Inside the Lines: Sun, shorts and baseball

By Eric Monek Anderson
Sports Editor

Friday, March 2, 2007

Grapefruit. Cactus. These, friends, are the juicy images of baseball spring training. Green grass. Short sleeves. As you gaze out your window at dirty snow banks that have covered up portions of the ground for two months, imagine yourself traveling to someplace exotic, like Jupiter or Surprise.

Jupiter, in Florida, is the spring training home of the reigning World Series champs, the St. Louis Cardinals, as well as the Florida Marlins of Miami. Surprise, an actual town in Arizona, plays host to the woeful Kansas City Royals and perpetually pitching-less Texas Rangers. Some other spring training cities in Arizona's Cactus League and Florida's Grapefruit League? Tempe, Mesa, Lake Buena Vista, Clearwater, and Kissimmee. Peoria, Ariz. - not Peoria, Ill. All of them feature sun and heat.

One spring training site receiving special attention is Vero Beach, Fla, which has been known as “Dodgertown” every spring since 1948 as the training home of the Los Angeles Dodgers. In 2009, the team will move from quaint, anachronistic Dodgertown to a new facility in Glendale, Ariz., much closer to the team's SoCal fan base and their wallets. It's another indication that spring training has become a feast for the fan.

Before spring league games began yesterday (the hometown Twins took on the reloaded Boston Red Sox), fans crowded against fences, straining to watch as superstars ran through mundane drills. Autographs abound during breaks. Fans of another sport can check out the many local golf courses. Players stop to chat and to pose for pictures. Young fans wear their favorite player's jerseys while old veterans of spring training wander around, armed with cameras and fertile reserves of baseball memories: the best kind of memories.

Perhaps no image better typifies spring training's relatively relaxed atmosphere than that of dozens of players lounging in the outfield, joking with each other as they stretch in preparation for another day of practice.

Almost every piece about spring training feels compelled to mention that “hope springs eternal,” even for the lowliest of teams. In the warm winter sun, far away from the desolate Februaries of places like Cleveland, Detroit or Pittsburgh, the season truly is one of unblemished, unthreatened potential. Free agent signings, like Boston's Japanese gyroballer Daisuke Matsuzaka, or mediocre former Seattle Mariner Gil Meche, who received $55 million from the Royals, begin with the same clean slate. The jury must remain out.

In baseball, free agency claims more important players than any other sport, so familiar faces in new uniforms appear in almost every camp. Everyone has a fresh start. Much like the optimism that pervades every fantasy baseball owner's dreaming at this point in the season, it is easy for innocent hope to color a fan's perspective.

If you're looking for an escape from another dreary Minnesota winter's day, imagine yourself in Florida or Arizona with your favorite team. You watch pitchers throw in the bullpen, infielders take grounders from a coach and outfielders practice tracking fly balls. These drills happen at every level of baseball, but here you are, watching millionaires act so normal and accessible.

You head to the local stadium: small, simple and outdoors, for a relaxed spring game. Stars and minor leaguers share the dugout. You sit down in your seat, which is almost too hot to touch. You sip an icy lemonade and give thanks that you're not frantically heating your car and chipping away ice in a St. Olaf parking lot. You hear the beautiful clear crack of a wood bat and you're suddenly absorbed in the national pastime.

Forget that coat and warm gloves. Walk outside in sunglasses, a baseball cap, shorts, T-shirt and sandals. This is baseball, pure and innocent.

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