When Mark Langston became a free agent, a lot of teams wanted him. But his wish list was much shorter: the Angels, the Dodgers or the Padres.

"I wanted to play in California," he said. "It's a great place to be. The weather is always great. The teams are very competitive. If you talk to the players, most of them would like to play out there."Darryl Strawberry did. He and Brett Butler hit the free agent freeway to Los Angeles last winter. Willie McGee and Dave Righetti teamed up and traveled to San Francisco. Gary Gaetti went the same way and joined Langston in California and Bob Welch stayed in Oakland.

"With free agency, there might be a tendency to look West," Angels general manager Mike Port said. "There's a way of life people perceive - that it's Disneyland. It's not, but there really isn't anything you can't do in California. You can play and live there all year. There has been some shift in baseball and I think that reflects a trend in the general population."

It sure does. Both are tilting west.

Of the 1,023 players that began spring training on major league rosters, 215 (21 percent) were born in California. No other state comes close, with Florida next with 61 players (6 percent).

California has the most people, too. According to the 1990 census, 12 percent of the 248,709,873 Americans live there.

And the more players that come from a place, it seems, the more that eventually want to go home.

In 1961, California also provided the most players to the majors, but only 9.8 percent. New York was next with 7.4 percent and Florida was far back at 1 percent.

In 1960, a year before the Angels were formed, just 8.76 percent of Americans lived in California. But that was before a lot of things started changing, on the field and off.

While the East became known for being cold, costly and crime-ridden, the West prospered with its promise of ocean and opportunity. As more people moved to California, so did more players.

So did baseball's balance of power. Now, the last three World Series have been all-West affairs; before that, just twice had two West teams met in October. The last four West winners have won the American League pennant; that happened a total of four times before the streak.

True, not everyone jumps at the chance to play in California. The Dodgers tried to lure Robin Yount, Tom Herr and Ron Oester to Los Angeles in recent years and failed. George Bell, Mike Boddicker and Vince Coleman were among the other free agents who went elsewhere last winter. Jack Clark even went from from sunny San Diego to brisk Boston, albeit partly because of a feud.

But, more often than not, the West comes out best.

Strawberry, Langston, McGee and Righetti were born in California and moved back when they could. Bruce Hurst, a top free agent two years ago, did the next-best thing; he wanted to play closer to his home in Utah, so he signed with San Diego.

Rickey Henderson, born in the Bay area, and Eddie Murray, raised in Los Angeles, got home by trades that they approved. Dave Winfield, a former Padres star, wound up near there when he OKed a deal by the New York Yankees. Eric Davis, meanwhile, talked about becoming a free agent and playing in Los Angeles with Strawberry, his boyhood friend.

"That's going to happen more and more, players going back to their roots. And a lot of them are from California," Boston Red Sox general manager Lou Gorman said. "There's a lot of competition to play in that area.

"With the draft, you might have a player from Boston who wants to stay there, but is taken by Houston. Eventually, they have the right to choose, and a lot of them go out there," Gorman said. "But they can't get everybody. You can only have one right fielder on your team, not nine of them."

For many, it's a case of California dreamin'.

Tim Wallach, born in Huntington Park, Calif., has played only for Montreal and recently signed a contract extension to stay with the Expos. Still, he thinks about playing on the green grass out West.

"If I was in that position as a free agent, that's where I'd want to be. I think a lot of players would be," Wallach said. "It's got everything."