Nailed to a wooden support above the right center field wall of the Sam W. Wolfson Baseball Park, rising into the brittle Florida sky between two waving palms, the Marlboro Man stares disconcertedly at the Washington Federals as they train for football's new spring season.
This 12-foot-high cardboard cutout of the Marlboro Man is a sign of summer and baseball in Jacksonville. For years he has watched over the Jacksonville Suns, the Kansas City Royals farm team. There is something exactly right, too, about the ads painted over the brick outfield wall: Sonny's Real Pit Bar BQ, Nimnicht Chevy, W.W. Gay Mechanical Contractor Inc. If you squint hard and hope, you can almost make out an ad for Burma Shave.
Wolfson Park is a palace not only of baseball but of the past; baseball as it used to look, without waterfalls or domes. What we have here now is the clash of the mechanized game of football with the leisurely game of baseball. Above all, it is the clash of past and future.
Football in spring.
The players in the 12 USFL camps are mostly castoffs or has-beens from the NFL looking for exposure and the chance to keep playing a game they love. There also are rookies, most of whom felt they would have a better shot with the new league.
The USFL's origins are financial. There is a team called the Federals because a group of businessmen saw an opportunity for profit and seized it. When the marketing analyses came in, they read America wants more football.
To many, a sport is as much its surroundings as it is the game itself, with the weather playing an essential part in one's vision and understanding of the event. The presence of football here among the sun and the palms promises different visions and understandings: weather-less, dome-housed baseball in January, ice hockey under the August sun.
Three days after training camp began, a deep canvas bag arrived at the Federals office at the Thunderbird Resort Hotel. It was a sack of baseball bats.
"What the hell are these for?" asked Rick Vaughn, the team's director of media relations.
"No idea," said General Manager Dick Myers. "I think someone has their sports screwed up."
Last Saturday night the Washington Federals took a field trip.
About 25 football players climbed aboard a double-decker bus and headed for the Jacksonville Memorial Coliseum to see the Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus.
The offensive lineman cheered when the ring announcer called out the elephants: "Those FA-bu-lous, PON-der-ous PACH-y-derms!"
A couple of days later, the name showed signs of taking hold. Some lineman were jogging to their next drill when one turned around to another and shouted, "Come on, you Pachyderm."
In the year of the Hogs, a few elephants are in search of notice and a nickname.
Dick Butkus is one of the best football names of recent memory. Dick Butkus--the name's hard consonants echo the violence of the sport.
The Federals precamp roster, on the other hand, contained some of the fanciful names of baseball, the sport of Napoleon Lajoie and Yogi Berra.
Obed Ariri. Dale Castro. Phil Dubois. Rodney Goosby. Dallas Hickman. Walker Lee (a descendent, claims Walker, of Gen. Robert E. Lee). It sounds like the lineup for the '56 White Sox.
And the best headline name of all, Coy Bacon (as in, "Bacon No Hog" and "Bacon Lays Egg on Blitz").
Les Boring, alas, was also less talented and among the first players to be released.
Ray Jauch, the Federals head coach, and general manager Myers were eating lunch and chatting about the future of the team. The complete list of NFL free agents had just been reprinted in a local newspaper and the first name to come up was the obvious one.
The always-circumspect Myers said, "Oh, I'm afraid we'll never be able to afford John Riggins."
The two men stared into their plates. But visions, bright visions of Riggins in green and white busting through any defense George Allen might muster, must have swirled through Jauch's gray matter.
He lowered his fork.
"I want John Riggins! Riggins and Craig James in the same backfield!" cried Jauch.
Myers blanched, but the coach continued:
"Is he a free agent today? Sign him up. Riggins would be great to have on a football team. It would keep everyone loose."
Myers' shell crumbled for an instant.
"Yeah, maybe we could have Riggins as offensive captain and Coy Bacon as defensive captain. Then everyone would be real loose."
Then Myers remembered his budget.
"Of course, we have to do the prudent thing," he said.
Gene Stauber is the team's defensive line coach.
He is a short man. "Well over four feet," in the words of Groucho Marx. Surrounded by his players, he is lost and only his gravelly voice rises above the canyon.
But Stauber is not a man to be trifled with. He served in World War II in the 362nd Infantry Brigade, 91st Division in Africa and Italy. During the war he played in the "Spaghetti Bowl" between the 5th Army and the 12th Air Force in Florence.
His language, on occasion, is half-Army and half-Marine. Yet when it came time to comment on the felicity with which one of his tackles had dispatched a would-be ball carrier, Stauber took the lineman aside and growled: "Incidentally, I rather thought your technique was better today."
The 98 players who came to camp, and the 68 who remain; came here with hopes. Some of them had once enjoyed the limelight, if not its strongest beams. Leave it to the fans to see if they could handle football in the heat. The players came for another shot at newly produced big time.
And, perhaps recognizing this, the Thunderbird Resort Hotel left printed cards on the pillows of the arriving players bearing the words of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark:
"To sleep, perchance to dream."