IN JUST ONE MORE WEEK, major league baseball will begin another regular season, which is a good thing for the game. If they didn't start the season, spring training would never end. And if spring training never ended, the National Enquirer would soon enough become the Bible of the sport and The Sporting News would be relegated to writing about fad diets and aliens and the latest on what Burt & Loni are up to.
Go ahead and name the hottest baseball stories of this spring. First, of course, there was Ricky Henderson's discourse about how it was too much drinking of alcoholic beverages on team flights that ruined the Yankees last year.Then there was the disclosure that Steve Garvey was a Padre even after he quit being a Padre.
After that, there came the Wade Boggs palimony suit, which made for riveting reading and viewing that continued through last night's TV interview with Boggs and Barbara Walters, an investigative journalist in search of something sporty and meaningful to cover after Robin Givens and Mike Tyson became old news.
And finally, the Pete Rose rumors surfaced, alleging that Rose may have gambled on baseball and could be suspended for a year, or longer; although Rose himself said, "I'd be willing to bet you that I have never bet on baseball - if I was a betting man."
Other than the Darryl Strawberry-Keith Hernandez incident, that sums up the biggest news of the spring. (At the Mets' team picture session, the photographer, unwary of team chemistry, asked Strawberry and Hernandez to sit next to each other. A lot of people always wondered what would be too close for comfort between these two. This was. Strawberry took a swing at Hernandez, but missed).
Unlike football and basketball, baseball is conducive to these kinds of stories because, first of all, hundreds of reporters are dispatched to Florida and Arizona to write about the spring training progress of the teams; and second of all, there is nothing to write about.
Once they've done their mood piece about the smell of the horsehide, and the crack of the bat, and the easygoing pace of the grapefruit circuit, these are writers in search of something to justify their existence, or at least their per diem.
Stories that would be largely ignored during the regular season become front page news. You can't even take a team picture without it becoming some kind of a national incident.
The investigation of Rose's possible gambling affiliations, for instance, has been under investigation for several months. But it took the lag days of spring training to bring the story to overkill.
Rose has more reporters following him around these days than when he was chasing Ty Cobb. Stories are mulling his chances of making it into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot - three years from now.
It's no surprise that the baseball itself is nothing to write home about in the spring. Not when seven full months of regular season play are to follow. Even Orel Hershiser gets bombed in the spring. Ask Hender-son.
These are reporters with time on their hands. They sit around, waiting for somebody to say something, and then they jump on it. Take, for example, one of baseball's most famous quotes, when Reggie Jackson said he was the straw that stirred the Yankees' drink. That quote occurred in spring training. It was said rather innocuously in a bar in Florida, was picked up by a writer for Sport Magazine, and became THE QUOTE of the spring. Thurman Munson got so upset with Jackson for saying it - since Munson thought he was the straw that stirred the drink - that the two didn't speak the rest of the season.
But that didn't affect the Yankees' success, as they went on to win the World Series.
Which brings up an intriguing phenomenon related to these spring training tabloid-esque stories.
Very often, they point to the season's most successful team, or teams.
Take last year, for instance. Remember the two hottest stories? One was when the Dodgers' Kirk Gibson threw a temper tantrum when reliever Jesse Orosco put eyeblack on the rim of his hat. The other was Roger Clemens sitting home in Texas, refusing to report to the Red Sox because of a contract dispute.
Both the Red Sox and Dodgers went on to win their divisions; and the Dodgers went on to win the World Series, on the strength of Gibson's famous home run.
"I love all this fuss," said Rose just the other day, "it gives my players a feel for how it's going to be in October." He could be right. The spring training chaos chart favors either Strawberry's Mets, Henderson's Yankees, Boggs' Red Sox, or Rose's Reds. Bet on it - if you're a betting man.