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Spring's harbinger

Blizzards may strike and international problems intrude. No matter: That annual harbinger of spring and renewal - baseball - is here again. This is the week the annual clash between fantasy and fact begins: the start of spring training.

It is the fantasy of many young males to join a major league team, as it was of their fathers and grandfathers: Beginning this week several hundred will try to make their dreams come true in 1984.

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It also is the Mittyesque fantasy of their elders to be real-life versions of Joe Hardy, that paunchy hero of the mid-'50s musical ''Damn Yankees,'' who became an overnight major league star. For decades men - little boys never wholly grown up - merely dreamed such heroics. Now a few are living it, after a fashion: They're signing up to spend a week trying to play baseball with the sports heroes of their youth. This year's heroes were players with the Boston Red Sox some 15 years ago; a previous spring the heroes were former Chicago Cubs.

But for the millions of fans around the US and overseas all this pales by comparison with the genuine article - major league baseball played by current big leaguers. This week the preliminary action starts, with coaches and managers in Florida and the Southwest sorting those who can play major league ball from those who only think they can. It is a job to be done quickly: The opening of the regular season is not quite two months away.

And in every American big-league city optimism is at its most euphoric. This is the Next Year that Brooklyn Dodger fans used to wait all winter for.

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