Diamonds in the rough 

With the help of warm sun and cold beer, three parks show off baseball at its best

Extolling the virtues of baseball is the annual rite of spring for the literary set. Ah, the smell of the grass, the crack of the bat ...

Such hackneyed prose tends to grow verbose. How could anything be so idyllic, particularly when baseball these days breeds cynics? Players make too much money. They don't play like they used to. The game doesn't care about its fans. After a winter of reading about the latest pitcher to sign for more money than the government prints in a day, your feelings toward the national pastime can best be illustrated by a nicely tailored suit of ice.

Yet once the pages of the calendar are peeled to March, the ice begins to thaw, for even the staunchest of baseball bashers can't resist the charms of the spring season. Wrapped in a cocoon unique to the Sunshine State, spring training lures fans with a mixture of warm temperatures, cold beers, relaxed settings and renewed hopes for October dreams to be fulfilled.

Nowhere in Florida is this concoction more potent than at Bradenton's McKechnie Field, spring home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. On the outfield wall, a hand-painted billboard says it all: "A Little Bit of Paradise." It's a place where you can almost hear Ray Kinsella surmise, "This must be heaven."

McKechnie sits in the midst of a working-class neighborhood, as if it had landed after a trip over the rainbow. Yes, the Pirates' spring home has that kind of magic. Yet that magic is created not by what the fan sees, but rather what the fan feels.

Renovated prior to the 1993 season, the original McKechnie Field was built in 1923, when it hosted Rogers Hornsby and the St. Louis Cardinals. Before the first game, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis was flown in by Cardinals owner Sam Breadon, the biplane landing in the outfield grass.

Such spectacular displays aren't a part of the renovated McKechnie, where the only objects landing in the outfield are base hits. But the fans' perspective remains largely intact. Sitting underneath a Spanish mission-style white facade are the canopied grandstands -- making for 6,562 available seats -- and all bordered by red brick, lending a feeling of The Great Gatsby meets Wrigley Field, with some Camden Yards thrown in.

Even the worst seats offer the intimacy that characterizes a spring- training game. One need only walk inside the gates of McKechnie to absorb its special atmosphere personified by the aesthetic appeal of the wide plaza located in the underbelly of the park, where fans can purchase souvenirs, fresh-squeezed lemonade, a foot-long dog or perhaps a cool one. Easily the best small park in Florida, McKechnie effectively bridges the generations from Babe Ruth and flannel uniforms to double-knits and Ken Griffey Jr.

That oasis is more precious for its durability in an era that prefers shiny and new. After playing for decades on the picturesque bayfront in downtown St. Petersburg's Al Lang Stadium, the Cardinals debut this year in a new spring-training complex in Jupiter. This spring also will see the new baseball stadium at Disney's Wide World of Sports inaugurate its first full season as spring-training home for the Atlanta Braves. Indeed, if contemporary comfort is your goal, just travel north from Bradenton to Tampa's Legends Field, which has all the bells and whistles available to the modern baseball fan.

Located next to Houlihan Stadium, home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Legends Field is a name consistent with its tenants, the New York Yankees, the most well-known sports franchise in the world.

Yankees tradition is personified at this park, from a replica of the monuments at Yankee Stadium to the signs identifying rows and seats at the six vomitories entering Legends Field. Each features a team picture from a Yankees championship season, along with large photographs of two of the team's most prominent players.

Legends Field seats more than 10,000 fans, but every seat makes you feel like you're on top of the action. And there's a big-time ambience derived from the presence of the New York media to the many celebrities who attend games on a regular basis. Living Yankee legends, such as Joe DiMaggio or Phil Rizzuto, can be seen on any given day; other legends, such as Reggie Jackson and Ron Guidry, are employed as special instructors and wear the famed Yankee pinstripes every spring. And always, "The Boss," George Steinbrenner, is on hand, kibitzing with fans and stirring the action.

All the standard ballpark fare is available, but there are tasty alternatives reminiscent of Tampa's Latin heritage; a Cuban sandwich with a cup of black beans and rice is tough to beat. The souvenir shop outside the park allows fans to choose virtually every Yankee item available for public consumption. And though you'll pay a dollar more for everything at Legends, from tickets to parking, seldom do you hear any of the patrons at the sold-out games complain.

Chain of Lakes Park in Winter Haven completes the list of favorite spring-training sites. Harder to find than most parks, it's well worth the hunt.

Once the Boston Red Sox moved out and the Cleveland Indians moved in in the early '90s, they dressed up the old park, which is unique for its design and the way it sits on a hill overlooking a lake. Indians players can be seen during the course of the games or workouts wetting a line in search of a lunker bass or looking for the granddaddy of alligators most claim to have seen.

The pace of Chain of Lakes park is strictly small-town, which makes the spring experience even more laid back. A personal favorite activity involves finding a shady spot in the stands during the late innings; as the action winds down and players lifted from the game begin to run their sprints along the outfield warning track, there's nothing like savoring one of the hand-rolled pretzels heated on the grill and bathed in hot mustard.

Since the Indians have evolved into one of the majors' best teams of the '90s, the outing these days makes for more interesting viewing. But should the game become a yawner, the baseball purist can venture over to the four fields behind Chain of Lakes, where the Indians' minor-league prospects play games against minor-leaguers from other organizations -- particularly interesting since the Indians have one of baseball's deepest minor-league systems. Insiders can take a look at hot-shot third baseman Russell Brannan or second baseman Enrique Wilson, both future major-leaguers.

If you can't thaw out with one of those three excellent spring-training options, then you are at least cold enough to hold my beer.


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