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ACT III: THE SWING // Getting to the show

They amble out onto the grass in their black uniforms, and at first, they look menacing. These are, after all, the mighty Pittsburgh Pirates. The team of Honus Wagner, Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell.

"We are fam-il-lee" and all that.

You take up your position behind the cage to watch batting practice and you start to realize these are kids. Minor leaguers, mostly. And they seem nervous and unsure of themselves.

You don't recognize any of the names, but what's worse, there are about 25 players on the field, and none of them are laughing, talking or joking around.

It's spring training. The games don't count. You can have a little fun.

But not these guys. They haven't played together. They don't know each other. They may not have a job tomorrow.

So they retreat into themselves. Make the team. Get to the show. That's all they care about.

You remember watching the Yankees take batting practice. Now those guys, they oozed confidence. They talk a lot, and there are always plenty of radio, TV and newspaper people hanging around to record what they say.

The Pirates labor in silence.

And you are alone behind the cage.

"Yeah, it is kinda quiet," Pittsburgh second baseman Lou Collier says before he steps up to hit. "Just one of those days, I guess."

One of those days.

Sunflower seeds on the dugout floor. Nylon mesh jerseys. Franklin batting gloves. Nike cleats.

When they swing, almost all of them do the same thing: head down, back elbow up, a half step toward the pitcher as they stride into the ball, and follow through.

You imagine some Little League coach somewhere taught them that.

And then you find yourself in a tunnel under the stands, waiting for the game to start. About a dozen members of the Clearwater American Little League are waiting there, too.

They are 9- to 12-years-old, reed thin, and today, they get to be "baseball buddies" at the game _ which means they run out onto the field, stand with a Major Leaguer during the National Anthem, and then run back.

As they wait at the edge of the tunnel, they chew on their gloves and point to the players they'll be standing with. When their names are called, team manager Hoyt Hamilton sends the boys out onto the field.

He watches them and smiles.

You say something about his first name. He explains that he was named after Hall of Fame pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm, who threw a no-hitter for the Orioles three days before Hamilton was born in September 1958.

"Look at Nick Miller, our centerfielder," Hamilton says, pointing to the outfield. "He's almost as tall as the Pirate guy."

You look, and he's right.

The game starts and the crowd settles into a "baseball pace." That's somewhere around 33. During the game, players and coaches sit on metal folding chairs next to the dugout, they jog in the outfield, and they come and go as they please.

After a few innings, Phillies slugger Danny Tartabull grabs his bats and trots to the clubhouse. He's through for the day.

A foul ball lands in the bleachers and rattles around the seats.

"That's a bad sound for a general manager," says a fan at the rail. "It means empty seats."

There are a lot of those today. The stands are a little more than half full.

It didn't used to be that way.

You wonder if maybe the fans have finally had enough _ enough of teams like the Pirates that sign only inexpensive players, but sell only expensive tickets.

Go on strike, spit on umpires, play for the highest bidder, hit .220 and make a million bucks.

It's not real anymore.

At 3:30 the game ends. The Phillies win 4-3. Only a few players stick around for autographs. Phillies second baseman Mickey Morandini, who drove in three of his teams' four runs, waits to be interviewed by a Philadelphia TV station.

Gotta get the sound bite.

And then, except for an equipment man picking up towels in the dugout, the field is empty.

By 4 o'clock, nearly all the fans are gone. The Phillies parking lot is quickly losing its stock of Pathfinders, BMWs and Jeep Wranglers. The lot is guarded by two men in Jack Russell Stadium vests. About a dozen autograph seekers patrol the other side of the fence with their cameras, baseballs and hopes.

A young man in a blue Phillies hat has this autograph business down to a science. He is bold, persistent and most of all, polite. He rushes the driver's side window, pen and program in hand. "Can I have your autograph, Mr. Giles?"

He is the only one who gets Bill Giles, the managing general partner. But he almost gets run over.

Getting ink is a crap shoot. Long-time Phillies announcer Richie Ashburn stops his gray Mercedes and signs for everyone. Morandini zips through and barely slows down.

"It drives me crazy when they don't sign autographs for kids . . . and grown adult women," Amy Goldstein says with a grin. She came to Clearwater with her husband and son. All the way from Haddonfield, N.J. They're spending 10 days here. Doing Disney, the beaches, and spring training. Autographs, memories, and too much sun.

By 4:30, only five cars are left in the lot.

"Well," Amy says, "I guess I'll have to go to my mother-in-law's now. I put it off as long as I can.

"I could do this all day. There's nothing better than being outside on a beautiful day watching baseball."

At 5 o'clock, the fan contingent at the gate is down to two. One of them is sitting on the curb.

The other, the man in the blue hat, remains at his post. Alert and ready. And hopeful.

It might be one-sided, and it might be misdirected.

But there is still loyalty in baseball.