By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - As the echoes of the Super Bowl fade, baseball fans have begun dreaming of Valentine's Day and a renewal of their love for the summer game with the arrival of pitchers and catchers to spring training camps.
Nothing warms the heart of snowed-in devotees of the diamond like visions of the hardball tossed and the crack of ball on bat in the warm weather climes of Florida and Arizona in the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues.
Cupid's big day, Feb 14, this year also marks Monday's voluntary start for pitchers and catchers from Major League Baseball's 30 teams to report to team training camps and begin limbering up for the 2011 campaign.
Twelve days later is the mandatory date for all players to be in camp, and teams are all in full swing for preseason games by the time March begins.
Spring training, with roots going back to the 19th century, is a time for players to reunite with old team mates, get in shape, bond with newcomers and work on improvements.
The relaxed atmosphere leads players to mingle more with fans at the small ballparks and practice fields, and draws team followers from northern locales.
The games are casual, with shifts of players taking their turns on the diamond, though management often casts a close eye on the skills and condition of aging players while appraising the readiness of young hopefuls.
Wins and losses are not necessarily accurate indicators.
In last year's Cactus League standings, the San Francisco Giants led all teams with a 23-12 record and the Texas Rangers were last at 10-19. The Giants and Rangers met seven months later in the World Series.
Some point to the Cincinnati Red Stockings and Chicago White Stockings as holding the first organized baseball camps in 1870 in New Orleans. Others point to the Washington Capitals and their four-day camp in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1888.
By 1900, training camps were commonplace in the southern U.S. with teams arranging to play local semi-pro squads or against one another, defraying expenses by breaking up their railroad trips on the way down and back to play exhibition games.
Florida became the center of preseason preparation by the 1920s and Arizona joined the fun when the Giants and the Cleveland Indians set up camps in Phoenix and Tucson in 1947.
This year, Jayson Werth (Washington Nationals), Carl Crawford (Boston Red Sox), Adam Dunn (Chicago White Sox), Adrian Beltre (Texas Rangers) and Victor Martinez (Detroit Tigers) among others will be getting accustomed to new surroundings and new team mates in the new baseball year.
The visiting Arizona Diamondbacks and World Series champion Giants launch the Cactus League schedule on Feb 25 in the 10,500-seat Scottsdale Stadium outside Phoenix.
Within three days, the month-long schedule of warm-up games will be underway in earnest with the major league teams, split nearly evenly between Florida and Arizona, playing between 25 and 30 games to get ready for their six-month-long season.
(Editing by Steve Ginsburg)