The George Washington University baseball team spent its last day in paradise yesterday.
With heavy hearts and Florida tans, the Colonials broke their week-long spring training camp and caught the night train back to their muddy home field on the Ellipse.
The Mets and the Cardinals train here, too, but the pros don't love the palm trees and balmy salt breezes of this old town by the gulf the way the young college men from Washington do.
For big leaguers, spring training is a mellow six-week preamble. For the GW men, who raised money with keg-o'-beer raffles, this is the highlight of their baseball lives: a nine-day wonder that escapes before they have tasted it.
In fact, two of these nine vacation days are not spent on the diamond with the coach, but in the coach playing diamonds. The train trek is 23 card-playing hours each way.
"Goodbye sunshine, hello snow," mourned GW southpaw Kitten Keith as the last hours of bliss stole away. "We open our regular season Sunday. The lousy Ellipse will probably be under ice."
The GW players know they deserve a week in the sun.
"For sure we'd like to stay down her forever," junior catcher Scott Carcella said. "We'll be back on the Ellipse soon enough with the derelicts sleeping on the heat grates in right field. They wake up in the middle of the game and stagger from one foul line to the other."
From the moment GW stepped on the train headed south, not a minute has gone unappreaciated.
When the Colonials left Washington a week ago, it was snowing. "That really fired us up," said Mike Toomey, the pepper-pot coach who played center field for GW four seasons ago. "We figured it was time for a little Surf City action."
That day-long ride down was "a lot of the old sit-up routine, plenty of snoozing, and winnin' money off the coach at hearts," Toomey said. "It was just like the old Babe Ruth days of riding the trains."
Any team that can dig a 23-hour train ride should have no trouble sleeping 24-to-a-room or riding around St. Petersburg at night 20-to-a-van.
"Life's been kind of cramped," senior Craig (Pink) Floyd said. "All 24 of us are sleeping in bunk beds in one room that's about as big as the third-base coach's box!"
The Southern Regional Little League Headquarters - with its four practice fields and barracks - has been GW's home.
"It's been great," Carcella said before catching himself. "Well, the weather has been great. And the beaches, and the dog tracks at night and the big-league exhibition games and Disney World.
"But that barracks is unbelievable. It smells worse than a locker room. The name on the door says 'Giants.' It should say 'Midgets.'"
If the Colonials didn't have togetherness before, they have it now.
"Twenty of us squeezed into that van the other night," Floyd said, pointing to a vehicle designed to accommodate eight. "Coach Toomey said he knew right where Clancy's Bar was.
"In fact, he knew 'Right where it was,' for an hour and half. We'd still be lost if we'd kept following the coach's directions."
The Colonials run a Toomey-type ship: high intensity, lots of chatter on the field and loose as a goose everywhere else.
The Colonials, who have won all seven of their Florida games, showed more hustle in nine innings against Quinsigimond Junior College than some big-league teams do in a month.
"Good deuce, good deuce," Toomey said as his pitcher broke off a sharp curve. GW hardly needs a third base coach; a dozen players are giving the base runners advice.
"Four years ago when I was a freshman this team was a joke," Floyd said. "It was like a PE class, not a scholarship sport. The coach didn't even come to Florida with the team. All we did was drink beer and carouse.
"Now we're a serious team, one of the best in the East (14-9 last spring)," Floyd said. "We have the right balance of work and hell-raising."
GW was so anxious to get down to work that on its first day in Florida it played a squad game from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., and then called a mandatory team meeting.
"It was an absolutely mandatory meeting," Kenny (Snake) Lake said. "Even the coach wasn't invited. We held it down in a striptease club on the beach. Yes, it was a very useful meeting."
Baseball, obviously, is different from other major-college sports. "It's the most relaxed, the most fun," Carcella said.
Of course, sometimes a little fun can backfire. Carcella's shoulder is dislocated. "I did it," he said, "playing Frisbee on the beach."
Perhaps the Colonial style is personified by the case of Tino Minaldo, dedicated outfielder.
"Tino's your fiery Italian," Carcella said. "You'll find him out here hitting in the cage against the Iron Mike (pitching machine) until it's practicallvy dark.
Minaldo, however, is terrified of frogs. So, naturally, as least one frog is in his bunk every time he opens it.
"He really takes the bat after 'em," Carcella said. "It's taken us a week, but we've finally convinced Tino that it's not the frog's fault. They're not climbing in there by themselves. So now he's taking the bat after us."
"We have sensible curfews and common-sense rules," Toomey said. "If we don't play until the next night, they can stay out until 1:30 a.m. On the other hand, if they know they need rest, they get it.
"I gave them the whole day off Wednesday to go to Disney World or to see the Dodgers or to do something educational like lose money at the dog track. Hey, they've worked all year for this trip. They deserve to have some fun."