"In winter, I get Cabin fever bad. I wish I had a tape recording of the sounds of batting practice... the smack of the glove... the crack of the bat... the chatter. It's so alive."
Ray Miller, Baltimore Oriole pitching coach
The third-base box seats get the warm morning sun, so that's where us old men sit -- feet propped on the seat back in front, napes of necks on the cool blue railings behind.
Anyone who comes to spring training in February is, of course, an honorary old man. No one belongs here who is not willing to smell, taste, see, touch and feel as though for the first time or last.
Miami Stadium, this ancient corrugated-tin ballpark for 10,000, is the home of the Baltimore Orioles and the perfect shrine in which to worship baseball's annual idyll to indolence. This is nirvana for the dormant senses.
The 80-degree air is blessed with odors so serene that you must sniff to identify the traces of fresh mown grass, infield dust and Florida humidity.
In the Oriole dugout the scents of old gloves cured in oils, and new bats, rubbed with pine tar, mix with the aroma of hot black coffee in Manager Earl Weaver's cup.
The soft, steady breeze makes you feel as baked and quiescent as the red clay of the pitcer's mound, as relaxed as a tough-hided alligator with nothing to do but snap its jaw occasionally to see if it still works.
If the winds could carry words, then these cloudless Miami askies would bear the legend: released from all
"It's so boring," says picher Jim Palmer "Don't you just hate it?"
Then he laughs. "Actually, this is my favorite time of the season. There's no such thing as "Who's coming up in the bottom of the seventh.'"
That is the gist of February baseball: the motions, gestures, sights and sounds of the graceful game without its distractions of meaning.
"Every day is like those special afternoons in summer when you go to Yankee Stadium at 2 o'clock in the afternoon for an 8 o'clock in the afternoon for an 8 c'clock game," says Miller, the pitching coach. "It's so big, so empty and so silent that you can almost hear the sounds that aren't there.
"You find yourself looking at different things in spring training. Larrry Harlow may not have remarkable statistics, but I swear he's the most graceful ballplayer I ever saw."
This is not only the biggest ballpark in Florida, but perhaps the best for watching the game with that artist's gift of second sight.
As you step from the junkies and bums of Miami's deteriorating 10th Avenue through the untended gates of the stadium, you are struck by the smell of fresh paint and the sight of huge, old oil paintings.
The cavernous, dimly lit underbelly of the stands is covered by several thousand square feet of Ash Can School sports muralls -- a turn-of-the-century barge fight, a suicide squeeze play in mid-pitch, buxom babes battling at roller derby.
In the Mellon Gallery they might not pass muster; in a ballpark they are magnificent. The squeeze play is a perfect introduction to spring basebsll: motion and facial expression captured for its own sake without any hint of a result.
Only 100 people passed through this open portal today -- construction workers on a break, idle teen-agers and genuine old men in the peculiar out-of-date caps and comfortable shoes that appear in the gentlemen's wardrobes once they no longer care about the appraising eyes of women.
No two of these watchers sit within 10 feet of each other. These groups of one exchange conversation in speeches of two words: "See that... Pretty good... Not bad... Strong arm..."
Ball players tend to be groups of one, men who draw a small and exclusive circle around themselves. It is hard to step across that invisible boundary -- all you have to do is prove to them that you care. Not even care about them, just care about their game.
The cost of such proof? Nothing. The only admission today is the admission that you love baseball. Sufficient documentation fro such a claim is that you are here.
"Hey, Jack, you bum," Oriole Coach Jim Frey yells to an elderly fan. "Who are you going to root for this year? Us or the Yanks (who train 20 miles away)?"
"Well, not the Yanks," growls the old man, pretending to be grouchy "You guys got an outfielder who can catch the ball yet?"
Here we find the few men baseball players truly call their frinds. In a September pennant race, under the world's fickle eyes, that camaraderie with a jajor leaguer has no price. The cost of such friendship now in February is one quiet, knowing smile.
The Orioles lean on the railings and talk to anybody who wants to chat. They are about as aloof as weathered fishermen on a pier digging through a can of bait.
"We'd give an autograph to anybody who was here today," says Palmer. "But then, the people who are here today aren't the kind who would ask for an autograph. They're my idea of good baseball fans.
"Anybody who comes to watch you run wind sprints and play catch and cover first base on bunts is obviously here for the esthetics. They have a feeling for the game. They'realways good people to talk to."
Like any holiday from life, these days of utter unconcern cannot last long. "I don't even hurt anywhere yet," laughs Palmer, the eternal, self-confessed hypochondriac.
Soon the curve balls must snap once more, the fast balls hop. The smell then will be the whiff of success, the only flavor will be the taste of dust after striking out. The fleld of vision narrows as soon as the score is kept. The "Regulars" report this week.
The drama which is common to all games will return to baseball soon enough. The unique peace that sometimers seems to lie -- like the quiet benediction of a solitary Yankee Stadium -- at the center of our most tranquil game will gradually recede.
But for a few more days, a few more hours at least, spring training is allowed to languish in its season of sweet boredom.