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Spring hopes eternal: Baseball begins annual renewal

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Read any book on the subject by George Will, or watch one of those sepia-toned Kevin Costner movies, and it’s easy to see why baseball is known by the folklorish title “The National Pastime.”

It’s all about eating Cracker Jacks, and watching the big game with your pop — a Norman Rockwell portrait of nostalgia and sentimentality.

But with increasingly exorbitant ticket prices for regular-season games — and overpaid and unapproachable players stocking rosters — baseball doesn’t exactly embody the innocence of Americana ascribed to it for so many decades.

That’s why so many baseball fans pack their bags and head out to locations in Arizona for spring training, with the hopes of catching a glimpse of what Major League Baseball may have looked like in its infancy.

Unlike the megaplexes thatdot the major-league landscape, spring training stadiums are cozy, intimate affairs, and the players are as accessible as the popcorn vendors.

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In the past, spring training was the province of senior citizens and bored Arizona State University students stuck on campus during spring break. But since the late 1980s, it has become big business, with many teams building sparkling new ballparks and thousands of fans and families from around the country descending on Phoenix and surrounding suburbs that are increasingly becoming more upscale to cater to the new-money vibe.

Nonetheless, spring training is still a far cry from the hustle and stress of the regular season, when wins and losses count in the standings and careers are made.

The Giants begin their spring training schedule today against Chicago. Their first home game is Friday against the Milwaukee Brewers at Scottsdale Stadium, San Francisco’s home-away-from-home ballpark that seats about a quarter of the capacity AT&T Park holds.

Scottsdale Stadium won’t feature garlic fries, $7 beers or an oversized Coca-Cola bottle. But it will offer plenty of green grass to sit on in the outfield “bleachers,” where it costs fans just $8 to watch the Giants play.

Jesse Moore, a San Francisco resident since 2001, made the trip down to Scottsdale to watch the Giants play in an atmosphere he likened to a more amateur setting.

“Spring training was so informal, you could easily go and talk to the players if you wanted to,” said Moore, 26, who lives in San Francisco’s Mission district. “It was like you were at a high school game or something.”

Moore’s visit to the Giants’ spring training home was highlighted by one of the most cherished events of any baseball fan — the chasing down of a home run ball.

“I was sitting out on the lawn in the outfield, and there wasn’t a wholelot of people there,” Moore said.

“I saw the ball coming, and I actually had enough space to take a couple of strides and dive for it. I didn’t quite catch the ball in the air, but it still made for a good story.”

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