Once, spring training was quiet, sleepy, sneaky. News from the grape-fruit and cactus world crept northward as slowly as the thaw.

Teams, there were only 16 then, were wed to a caste system that budged itself with a glacial unconcern.

The first division and the second viewed each other like Upstairs and Down. Children were born, even unto the third generation, knowing from the cradle where their teams would finish the season.

A few trades, a smattering of self delusion, were the green piney boughs, thrown onto the smoking hot stove. They were enough. The promise of a gifted rookie, even the good health of a favorite player, was enough to titilate the baseball believer.

The game stretched itself in the Southern sun, confident that it was loved, certain that its fans would be in their accustomed seats for the first ball.

Baseball was not so much a hurried, predictable rite of spring, as a right of spring, an inalienable pleasure waiting to be pealed at leisure like a Pompano orange.

Now, spring training opens with cymbals, with balderdash, with a manic pursuit of profit, with near chaos.

The first official day of spring training does not arrive until Wednesday and already the world champions from New York are stirrup-deep in manure. Don't ask for details. Only the Yankees deserve to know.

A Fire-the-Commissioner movement has been run up the flag pole just to see who would salute. Plenty did.

Vida Blue spent the winter wondering if he was an Oakland A, a Cincinnati Red or a Denver Orange Sox. He still doesn't know for certain. He just knows he's Blue.

Perhaps Baltimore Manager Earl Weaver gave an unintentional insight into this new sort of baseball spring when he said:

"I usually try to forget the game for several weeks before spring training. Clear my mind. That used to be hard. Now it's almost too easy. I spent three weeks playing golf and now I can't remember who Lyman Bostock plays for."

Since Bostock hit 338 last year, and now earns one of the highest salaries in the history of baseball -- $600,000 a year -- Weaver's loss of memory might well seem a harbinger of the times.

For the last three years -- with the advent of free agents, expanded interleague trading, and a general mood of forment -- baseball's annual rate of personnel turnovers has run between 10 and 15 percent.

Since that October night when Reggie Jackson made the world safe for his candy bar, more than 100 big league players have changed uniforms. And they weren't the guys who take batting practice before the gates open, either.

What fan, or scholar, could score perfectly on the new addresses of these dozen players: Bobby Bonds, Bert Blyleven, Mike Torrez, Dave Kingman, Al Oliver, Bert Campaneris, Fergy Jenkins, Larry Hisle, Al Hrabosky, John Candelaria, Rich Gossage, Richie Zisk.

These are the stars of the game, the guys with pizazz, the ones called King Kong, Mad Hungarian, Candy Man, Uncle Charlie.

So spring training is no longer a time for the game to surreptitiously catch up with the man, lurking behind one's shoulder whispering, "Back again . . . green grass . . . sunshine . . . play ball."

March is still the month to play catchup, but now it is the fan who must chase his game.

The result is the virtual demise of the Compleat Baseball Fan. The spring devotee, who in more stable times, could recite the entire Cleveland bullpen, now may not know that Andre Dawson, Warren Cromartie and Ellis Valentine form one of the game's best outfields.

Less than 20 years ago, spring training was akin to the first chapter of a thick, traditional novel. The teams resembled those intertwined families that played out their destinies through 500 exhaustive pages.

The narrative pace of a 19th-century Dickens serialization -- a chapter a week -- had the same slow heaping up of incident as a baseball season. That first chapter, with its introductions, was read with the most care.

Now, baseball's narrative voice changes constantly. Charlie Finley's disjointed stream-of-consciousness butts heads with Billy Martin's ongoing diary of a mad manager. Bowie Kuhn's ruminative internal monologues contrast with Mark Fidrych's free verse.

Baseball season no longer resembles a consecutive narrative as much as a collection of brilliant anecdotes and one-chapter short stories.

Rod Carew chases .400, then fades. Los Angeles blows open a divisional pennant race, then coasts. New York mourns, and debates, the trading of Tom Seaver.

Each team-family, each character, each story has its hour to strut. It is not until August and September that the old sense of focused narrative returns when the four divisions have reduced themselves to the manageable proportions of an old-fashioned pennant race.

In today's contemporary setting, the fan can be forgiven if he skims the first spring-training chapter. Whatever is of most (or loudest) interest, will force itself on the public ear in good time.

The old in-depth, season-long drama-as still exist. But they are more difficult to focus on. Teams like last year's Chicago Cubs and Chicago White Sox are so radically remodeled from one season to the next that it takes 50, even 100 games before the clubs have an identity -- even to themselves.

Consequently, the questions asked in March have changed. It makes less sense to predict pennant races, even to profile teams. The volume of unanswerable questions is greater.

For instance, even that most fundamental of baseball entities -- the pitching staff of a pennant winner -- is now a thing in constant flux.

The Yankee rotation to end 1975 was Hunter, Medich, Rudy May and Dobson. To start the '76 Series it was Alexander, Hunter, Ellis and Figueroa. In the '77 pennant race it was Torrez, Figueroa, Guidry and Tidrow. And to start '78 it could be Gullett, Messersmith, Gossage and Guidry.

That isn't a rotation: it's musical chairs. The likes of Ken Holtzman, Ken Clay. Gil Patterson, and Larry Gura have also started important games during that mere 2 1/2 years.

Spring training is just one symptom of such a transformed, kaleidoscopic game. Between the white foul lines, baseball occasionally reverts to the simple, classical order that was conceived a century ago.

Otherwise, the pace and flavor of the pastime are inescapably tied to these frantic times, whether that means vitalization or contamination.

Those pastoral photographs of out-fielders grazing in the Florida sun, of pitchers stretching in the dry Arizona air, are a well-meaning lie, a sentimental anachronism.

Spring training, like baseball, can never be the same.