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Nothing beats spring training

March Madness is great. I get it. I enjoy it, too. But those who ignore spring training and dismiss it as "practice baseball" are missing the point.

To me, the games going on in Florida and Arizona mark a crown jewel event on our sports calendar -- particularly if you are there in person.

The wins and losses aren't very important, but there are rich stories behind the individual encounters.

Jobs are won and lost. Lives change. All of us can appreciate the difference between the major-league minimum salary ($400,000) and minor-league pay (often less than $20,000 for the season).

If you think the games don't matter, perhaps you should ask the middle reliever with $380,000 at stake, a baby on the way -- and a few pitches to prove himself. The futures of dozens of players (and their families) will be determined, in real time, over the next two weeks.

For those who know the background, there is more intrigue in spring training than any reality TV series.

And that's another great thing: The players seem infinitely more accessible now than during the season. Many will sign autographs on their way to the clubhouse when they leave games. And if your team trains in a small enough town -- Lakeland and Port St. Lucie in Florida come to mind -- the guys at the dinner table next to you might be from major-league camp.

They aren't like the rest of us. But for six weeks, they sure seem like it.

In fact, the more time I spend around the game, the more sure I am that this is my favorite time of year.

More than the regular season. More than the postseason. Certainly more than the offseason.

It's not more memorable. It's not more compelling. But more enjoyable? Absolutely.

These six weeks -- from reporting date until Opening Day -- belong to us, the people who love the game but were never good enough to wear professional uniforms.

As a journalist, it's hard to envision better conditions. You don't have to get on a flight at dawn every third day. And you know that there is always a game nearby at 1:05 p.m.

If you can get to Phoenix or Tampa or Fort Myers, the biggest names in the sport will come to you. That is the case during February and March and no other months on the baseball calendar.

"I always tell my family and people around me," Giants left fielder Mark DeRosa said. "If you want to get close to the game, you want to get close to the players, come to spring training."

With a little planning, some luck and a full tank of gas, fans can troupe from ballpark to ballpark and see different sets of stars on back-to-back days.

Consider:

The Rangers beat the Mariners, 8-1, on Wednesday night. Michael Young, Josh Hamilton and Vladimir Guerrero appeared for Texas; Ichiro Suzuki, Chone Figgins and Ken Griffey Jr. for Seattle.

The Dodgers beat the Cubs, 7-3, on Thursday afternoon. Rafael Furcal, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and Manny Ramirez played for Los Angeles; Derrek Lee, Alfonso Soriano and Ryan Dempster for Chicago.

Elapsed time between the first pitch of Rangers-Mariners and last pitch of Dodgers-Cubs: less than 21 hours.

Driving distance between the ballparks: 11 miles.

Short of owning a private jet, it would be pretty hard to see all of those players within a 24-hour span during the regular season.

I know that spring training isn't perfect. Big-name players don't make every trip. It's too early for the regular-season ecstasy/agony cycles, which drew many of us to baseball in the first place.

Postseason drama can't be found at Roger Dean Stadium -- or even George M. Steinbrenner Field.

And yet the only-in-spring-training sights more than make up for it.

I didn't grow up in L.A. I've never been a Dodgers fan. But I was a little awed when I watched them emerge from the clubhouse in their brilliant home whites for the first time this spring.

And when I walked into their archrival's clubhouse in Scottsdale, Ariz., last weekend, Willie Mays was sitting at a table right in front of me. About 15 minutes later, I found myself interviewing Willie McCovey during batting practice.

When I mentioned that to DeRosa, he shook his head, a little disbelieving of his own good fortune.

"I call home religiously and tell my dad, 'You've got to see this,'" he said. "We've had Muhammad Ali in here. Willie Mays sits in here. Willie McCovey. Gaylord Perry. Will Clark.

"For me to see Willie Mays, and to pick his brain, and to talk with Will Clark ... Will was one of the guys I followed as a kid. I love that part."

When players start sounding like fans, it must be spring training -- the best time of year.