They stand in clumps around the batting cage, some of them the boys of future summers. So young, so promising, so vulnerable. Even their eyes speak their dreams. Sometimes when the words trail off -- "Making the major leagues? I'd say it was the most important thing I'd ever do . . . " -- they glance away, toward the thin palms that ring the distant fence, or shyly to the tips of their spiked shoes, and their faces brighten, as if they've glimpsed a brilliant baseball tomorrow that most will never reach.
Older men sit in judgment. Many are weathered from days in the sun, some too heavy from inactivity. Former players all. A white-haired scout, a pouch of Red Man sticking from his hip pocket, makes notes on his clipboard. A coach, tobacco bulging his jaw, sounds off like a Marine drill instructor at the sight of a kid shortstop letting a ground ball bounce out of his glove. "Hey, put a lid on that thing," the older man barks.
At Payson Field, where four manicured diamonds abut, the best minor league prospects of the Baltimore Orioles and New York Mets assemble each year at this time for almost two months of instruction and training. Six days a week they drill in the morning and play games in the afternoon, in a 10-team instructional league. In all, 18 major league teams operate instructional camps in Florida and Arizona. Shortly this day, the St. Louis Cardinals' candidates will arrive in vans to play the Mets while the Orioles will roar off in cars to play the Montreal Expos across town. Here, summer is endless, the game eternal.
"Now this kid was an absolute star in high school," says Terry Crowley, the Orioles' hitting instructor. Crowley sits on the metal-pipe framework across the back of a batting cage, peering through the net at the prospective major-leaguer. The orange-shirted Orioles are on one field, the blue-shirted Mets on the next. Crack! At the loud report of bat meeting ball, Crowley merely continues chewing gum.
"What he did in high school," Crowley continues, "was just overpower the ball, he was so much better than everyone else. But he developed some bad habits. We've got to work on them so he can hit in pro ball. Amateur ball and professional ball are two different games." His turn finished, the player runs out of the cage, another runs in. Nobody dares walk in the instructional league.
"Here's Al Pardo. Twenty-one game-winning hits in Double A. Switch-hitter. A catcher. He's going to be in Baltimore in a couple of years . . . This is Ken Gerhart. We experimented with him down here switch-hitting, but we've gone back to strictly right-handed. So his average doesn't reflect his hitting. He can hit. And he runs like a rabbit. Center fielder . . .
"I stress to them all, get a good pitch to hit. Try to be aware of what the pitcher is throwing. Don't look for a curve ball from Goose Gossage. Wait on the pitch, wait and go after it with a short, quick stroke. Most young fellows want to hit the ball over the fence."
Crowley used to be a utility player, mostly with the Orioles. But he drained almost everything from each of his opportunities; only four men in the history of the game delivered more pinch hits than his 109. Most were big ones. He won Game 4 of the '79 Series with a two-run, pinch double. When he would come out of the dugout swinging two bats, especially at Baltimore, crowds would stir. Crowley positively relished coming to the plate in the late innings with a chance to drive in the tying or winning run. "I wanted to hit," he says. "A hitter should want to hit with the winning run on second base."
An especially young-looking player steps into the cage. He weighs only 158 pounds, is just 17 years old. He chokes up on the bat. He is the son of the former Cleveland and Detroit slugger Rocky Colavito. A rarity in these times: a son smaller than his father. "His name is Steve," says Crowley. "He feels funny about being Rocky's son, but nobody out there knows who Rocky Colavito was. The other day I asked 10 Twins players, 10 of 'em, I said, 'Any of you guys heard of Rocky Colavito?' Nine heads shook no. The one said, 'Didn't he coach for Kansas City?' " Crowley laughs, shakes his head. " 'Yes he did,' I said. You have to be reminded how young these guys are."
Ron Salcedo comes to bat, only he looks as though he's standing in a hole. He's just 5 feet 7, a 172-pound left-handed hitting left fielder. A few minutes earlier Crowley said, "Size is an advantage, but there are exceptions. Joe Morgan, Freddie Patek . . . They have to be idols for some people." Crowley, looking through the net at Salcedo, says firmly, "He can hit the ball as well as anybody in this camp."
The next afternoon, the Cincinnati Reds are here, playing the Orioles. The Reds beat up on them a few days before, over in Tampa, but today everything is going the Orioles' way. With the bases loaded, Salcedo hits the ball flush. A short, quick stroke. Deep, deep to right. A grand slam! The ball bounces on, toward the parking lot. It's 6-0, Orioles. At home plate, Salcedo has to jump to execute a high-five with a teammate. In the little eight-row grandstand behind the screen a scout bends his head, writes something. Standing nearby, Crowley keeps chewing gum. It's 88 degrees. The blinding sun beats down.
A conversation between two Orioles players on a bench in the shade outside the clubhouse door. They are putting on their spikes after padding through the portal in their stockings. No spikes worn in the clubhouse. No exceptions.
Player No. 1: "This is my last day. Getting married."
Player No. 2: "You've got to get married to get out of here." Pause. "What are you going to do next year?"
No. 1: "Get divorced. Then the next year we'll get back together. The next year we'll have a kid. By that time I figure I'll be out of baseball or in the show."
They run to the field.
The Mets own some "name" players, touches of glamor.
The ultimate camp celebrity is Dwight Gooden. A 17-game winner with the Mets this season, when he struck out 276 batters to set a major league record for a rookie, Gooden drops by some mornings to work on a change-up and a more compact motion to reduce stolen bases. Even when he's not around, which is more often than not, Gooden causes a buzz.
"Is Gooden coming today?"
"Haven't seen him. He's on his own."
A year ago, Gooden was pitching in the instructional league, making him an instant legend to current aspirants, their living hope. "The minute he threw three or four balls you didn't have to be a scout," says Nick Shinkoff, a small, wiry man who was one for 40 years with the Giants.
A future Gooden? One might be Shawn Abner, the No. 1 pick in last June's draft of amateur players, from Mechanicsburg (Pa.) High School. The Mets don't doubt he'll play for them one day, probably in the outfield. "Can't miss," they say. His senior year he hit .571.
"I've learned more down here than I have in any similar period of time in my whole life," says Abner. He is 18. This summer he played at Kingsport, Tenn., in the all-rookie Appalachian League, then finished the season at Little Falls, N.Y., of the Class A New York-Penn League. He dreams of New York. "We could watch the New York games on cable TV," he says. "Now all of a sudden you're in the program, meeting everyone. You can actually touch them. They can help you out. It's like a fantasy, really."
Yesterday's Gooden: Clint Hurdle, big, dark and handsome, burst into major league baseball as a Kansas City first baseman with the initial hoopla of the first Concorde flight. His laughing countenance blazed across a 1978 Sports Illustrated cover: "This Year's Phenom." Yet in 1982 he landed in Tidewater of the International League, where he's been ever since. Now he's here, a wizened 27-year-old, trying gamely to win a last opening on the Mets' roster next spring as a third-string catcher and pinch hitter. Is the class here at Payson Field paying attention?
"I've been in bigger places," Hurdle says, straddling a bench. "The playoffs. The World Series. Sure, you want things to work out like peaches and cream, but it's not like that all the time. I know I've learned a lot. It's been a maturing process. You learn to do well the things you can do. The things you can't do you realize you can't, and you play within yourself . . .
"I've been married the last two years. I'll tell you, the last two years have been the most peaceful two years of my life. I hit a lot of home runs. I think I've done everything I've been asked to do. I just can't help but think that if I keep playing the way I am things will work out and I'll be in New York."
The Orioles, in contrast, are more anonymous. But they have a made a practice of taking raw material and honing replaceable parts for their major league squad. One can imagine Pardo crouched behind the plate in place of Rick Dempsey, Gerhart roaming center field where Paul Blair and later Al Bumbry did, the 6-2, 195-pound right-hander John Habyan on the Memorial Stadium hill. Habyan won two playoff games for Class AA Charlotte in September after starting the season at Class A Hagerstown. "He's like Seaver," pitching coach Ken Rowe says. "When others run out of gas, he's still throwing hard."
The one "name" among the team's prospects is Ripken. Younger brother of Orioles star Cal Jr., son of the Orioles' third base coach, Cal Sr., Billy Ripken seems for all the world the quintessential American ballplayer. Raised in Aberdeen, Md., he has already logged time at Bluefield, W. Va., and Hagerstown. A country boy, born to play. He has pale blue eyes, and brown hair lightened in places by the sun. At 19, he almost glides across the dirt at shortstop as he ranges left and right, and he throws quick as a whip, and ever so gracefully. And, his batter's helmet tipped low over his eyes, his right foot propped on the rubber tire of the batting cage, he is confident as he awaits his cuts. But he hit .239 at Hagerstown this year. "C'mon, say .240, it sounds better," he says, laughing.
Ripken is adept beyond his years in giving interviews, an inherited knack, perhaps. In front of his locker in the long concrete-block building, he speaks quickly, giving off a likable patter of statistics and homilies. Ever since Cal came up to the Orioles, Billy has, unrelentingly, been compared with him. His batting stance duplicates Cal's. He fields like Cal. People say, he's just a little smaller, but then Cal grew late. And Cal hit much better after he grew, so Billy . . .
But rather than shy from comparisons, Ripken offers one of his own. "I played 90 straight games at short," he says. "I was trying to set my own durability record, playing every day," a reference to Cal's every-inning streak of the past two years.
Indeed, Billy feels no pressure to succeed, he insists, just because Cal has succeeded. "It's important to me," he says, "because it's important to me." Further, he considers the Ripken family a wellspring of encouragement, not a burden.
"Dad, he's awesomely incredible. I'll call him -- he can be a thousand miles away -- and he'll tell me what I'm doing wrong. The next day I'll go out at batting practice and it'll be 80 percent corrected. Or if it's fielding, he'll say something like, well, you're not bringing the ball in, receiving the ball. If I call and get Mom, right away I'll say, 'Where's Dad?' She'll say, 'R-i-i-i-p, something's goin' wrong. Talk to him.' "
It's late afternoon and just about everyone has drifted away. Sprinklers water the fields.
"I've been putting on a uniform since I was 8 years old," Ripken says. "I'd have my bat boy uniform on and I'd be out on the field with Dad: 'Hey, Dad, can I shag batting practice?' Every day I put on the uniform. It seems like the right thing to do."
Most scouts sit up on the second story of a small pavilion to the rear of the stands behind home plate. A breeze blows through beneath the roof. From the raised vantage, it's like watching kids playing games on the lawn while sitting on the porch of a country house. Except these games can be serious. Stopwatches around their necks, sheets of paper on their laps, pens poised, the scouts miss next to nothing a player does, or fails to do. When they talk to one another, they keep looking out at the field. It's the Cardinals against the Mets.
"Why do right-handed hitters give up on that pitch from left-handers?" one wonders. The pitch was down and in. "Left-handed hitters don't give up on it from right-handed pitchers."
"Every lefty's got a chance, Monbo, right?"
Monbo is Bill Monbouquette, a classy right-hander who won 20 games for the Red Sox in 1963. He's looking things over for the Yankees. He's the one with the Red Man pouch in his pocket. But he's not saying much. Just looking out at the field.
"What'd you get, 4.8?" asks one man as a player runs from home to first.
"You know, some guys look like they're running, and they ain't."
"Hey, 3.8 on that one."
"That's a pretty damn good play right there." A Mets' shortstop, Kevin Elster, Little Falls this summer, scooped up a grounder behind second base, barely missing a swift runner with a strong throw to first.
"He's a steady shortstop, really dependable out there."
Sometimes the scouts will lean their black radar guns on the white railing and point them toward the pitcher. If the little number that clicks up after a pitch isn't somewhere close to 90, if that pitcher isn't "bringing it," as they say, those guns can snuff out a baseball life.
"What's this, last of the fifth?"
"That was a slow top of the fifth."
Clint Hurdle steps in. He has a classic left-handed power-hitter's stance: legs apart, knees bent, left elbow cocked. He looks as if he could squeeze sawdust out of the bat. The count goes to 3-0, but Hurdle gets the green light. After all, this is the instructional league. He fouls one deep to right. Then he swings and misses on a pitch slightly outside. A portent? And then: On a pitch to almost the identical spot, he strikes out.
"He took a couple of vicious swings, didn't he?"
"I think he's beginning to think when he's hitting."
There's a scraping of chairs on the cement floor.
"I've got to go to Tampa."
"Watch the bridge, Monbo."
Across town to the August A. Busch Complex. This is the instructional league's version of a road trip. Orioles at Expos. It's important for the players to make the traveling squad.
"You goin' on the road?"
"Nope. Stayin' back for extra hitting."
It's a typical instructional league turnout: about 20 people in the stands. Senior citizens. One brings his beach chair. A couple of teen-age girls. The scouts. It's a sleepy-time afternoon in the sun.
Four Expos players are stretched on the grass in the shade. "Bus ride . . . Idaho Falls . . . Long way. You go to sleep. About eight hours later you wake up."
"My girl called me last night . . . She hung up on me."
At shortstop for the Orioles is fresh-faced David Smith, out of the University of California at Riverside. He's tall and rangy. Ripken is playing second. Later, Smith would say, "I've never been to spring training. This is all new to me." A man ticked off for him great glove men who had played short for the Orioles: Billy Hunter, Willie Miranda, Luis Aparicio, Mark Belanger. "Mark Belanger," mused Smith, getting that distant, misty look. "Could he pick it, or what?" Which is to say that Belanger could play the infield exceptionally well.
Can David Smith pick it! In the bottom of the eighth, Smith turns a double play in big league style, hanging in against a sliding runner after taking a throw from the pitcher and, to murmurs of admiration, getting the runner at first with a wickedly wonderful sidearm throw. In the ninth, a 234-pound pitcher named Tommy Alexander from Meansville, Ga., comes on. "The question of all time," Alexander likes to say, "is, who was the Georgia fullback in 1980?" Herschel Walker's blocker. "Nobody knows." Alexander then puts thumb to chest. When he had his knee torn up in a scrimmage the following spring, he turned to his "second love." And now, all smiles, he gets the save as Gerhart, running "like a rabbit," as Crowley said he could, makes the last out, coming from deep left center to short right center.
"All I want to know is, who's buying the Big Gulps?" says Ripken, gathering his equipment.
Al Pardo is a young/old 22. In the mind's eye, his career stretches almost to the year 2000. At Charlotte this year he hit .270 with 15 home runs and 85 runs batted in. He could be that Oriole rarity, a home-grown catcher. But young as he is, he also is wise. This is his fifth instructional league camp. He's ready for what happens: He'll go into real state with his brothers if he fails. He has seen many fail.
"It's so tough, just to survive," he says. "So many guys, a couple of years and gone. They were good, but not quite good enough."
He's standing on the grass along the first base line, looking across the field into the distance.
"I've never been to Baltimore, never have," he says softly. "I think my time is coming."