SPRING TRAINING: PARADISE FOUND

Hometown Angels

Legend has it that spring training baseball has always been played in only Arizona and Florida.

But for most of their 30 year history, the California Angels have made their home in the quiet desert resort town of Palm Springs, Calif.

The Angels spent most of those years playing spring games on a field next to the town's high school (which educates the sons and daughters of some of the country's finest hotel workers and tennis instructors), because Gene Autry, the legendary country singer and club owner, liked having the team close to his home in town.

For the long-suffering Singing Cowboy--whose team has never yet played in a World Series--spring in the desert behind Mt. San Jacinto was a tonic which he used to soothe the pain of the previous October's perpetual disappointment.

For me, a baseball nut since the womb from Pasadena, Calif., the Angel camp at Palm Springs was my only taste of spring baseball. It was just a two-hour drive from my house, and my dad took me to an Angels-Padres game there when I was 11.

It was better than an amusement park. The Angels had built stands and converted the old high school park into a real ballfield, but the close, low stands made it possible to chat with players.

The whole atmosphere was totally informal. Players did windsprints in the outfield during the game. Some Angels snuck behind the bleachers to a cage. Fans could watch Rod Carew--Rod Carewl--swing a bat less than 10 feet away, permitting an exchange of insults and batting tips. And home runs were catchable for folks who brought mitts, though I never caught one.

I went back occassionally during family vacations, and during a high school a friend and I would drive out to take in a game. But slowly, the Angels--and Palm Springs--began to change.

Instead of the quiet town once referred to as the "home of the newlyweds and the nearly-deads," Palm Spring became a Spring Break hot spot for rambunctious youths. The prime attraction became not the ball-park but The Strip, a town thoroughfare where scantily clad men and women trampled on Christian morals. Sonny Bono, a powerless figurehead as the town's mayor, began a serious run for a U.S. Senate seat.

Ticket prices rose to the level of regular season games. And The Cowboy gradually turned over control of the team to his wife Jackie, who, everyone knew, had simply married Gene for his money.

In the end, this was all too much for Palm Springs and the Angels. They began to play more spring games in Arizona, and this spring they moved away for good.

I made it back last year for one game during the final spring at The Springs. The Angels beat the Cubs. I met general manager Whitey Herzog. He was new to the organization, but even he said he would be sorry to leave Palm Springs. Everything, for that one day at least, was the ballpark I first met when I was 11.

But there was one difference. During batting practice, Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg hit a ball over the left field fence. I caught it, and I kept it. It's the only piece of evidence I have that spring training baseball was once played in California.