It was Ladies' Night a few weeks back at Sip's, a popular bar in Port St. Lucie, Fla., and, as usual, several of the New York Mets were on hand. In the ladies' room, one temptress moaned, "My moles are smearing." On the dance floor, a male stripper in a gold thong gyrated in front of another woman, who licked champagne from his navel. "Wiggle it-just a little bit" boomed over the sound system--drowning out the muted television as it broadcast news of the latest Mets sex scandal.
Baseball teams headed north to start the regular season last week, but even the high spirits of opening day couldn't erase the special tensions of this year's spring training. After a six-week investigation, Florida prosecutors--citing lack of evidence--declined to charge Mets players Dwight Gooden, Daryl Boston and Vince Coleman with having sexually assaulted a New York woman during the training season last year. But 456 pages of lurid allegations became public once the case was dropped, giving the tabloids one more field day. And after Magic Johnson's announcement that he has the AIDS virus, Mike Tyson's conviction and the unsettling trickle of unproved sex charges against stars like David Cone in recent seasons, sportswriters scolded that baseball has to do something to keep sex headlines from becoming as much a part of the national pastime as pine tar and liniment.
Sure, but what? Owners and managers can't help but be nervous about seeing their huge investments in top players jeopardized by lawsuits and bad publicity, and though a few ball clubs have curfews, it's hard for them to tell their million-dollar men what to do after hours. Women are becoming more courageous about going public with reports of sexual abuse, but their failure to win cases or, sometimes, even press charges suggests there may also be questionable circumstances. At least there are signs the players themselves are becoming more wary. Worries about women are "extremely big right now," says Sam McDowell, director of the employee-assistance programs for the Texas Rangers and the Toronto Blue Jays. " You have [women] who are out for one thing only, and that's to get money from a ballplayer."
Well, maybe a few players are more wary. As teams wrapped up the last weeks of spring training, when managers bear down and the wives and kids arrive, ballplayers were still hitting the bars of the Florida coast, and the baseball "annies," as they're known, were still out looking for them. "We can't wait for the Mets or the Dodgers to get here-they lead interesting lives," says waitress Carrie Kleene, who dated a Dodger last season. "Every time January rolls around, it's a whole new set of guys. Everyone goes on a diet to look good for them."
And that they do, in their spandex bike pants, tight dresses, bulging bra tops and "big hair." The players tell stories of girls who write their phone numbers in the crotch of their panties and throw them into the dugout, who flash bare breasts and stake out their hotels. Richard Goodman, front-desk supervisor at the Palm-Aire Spa Resort in Pompano Beach, says he receives about 40 calls from women per player per night when the Yankees are in residence, and I only work the 3 to 11 p.m. shift."
What's the appeal of ballplayers? A waitress at a restaurant in Clearwater has done a careful study. "They've got nice butts," she says. Dating a ballplayer is "something to look back on and tell your kids," says Christi Russ, 20, of Lakeland, who dated a minor-league player last year. The minor leaguers tend to be more accessible, and many women dream of ascending to the majors with them. "Those were the funnest days of my life," says Tamra Soto, 23, who met her husband, then a minor-league pitcher, when she accompanied friends to a hotel room seven years ago. "You would just go to their room, knock on the door."
Many of the women vehemently deny they are "groupies." Lora Vaughan, a 33-year-old nurse who began dating Atlanta Braves three years ago, explained the distinction one night at Club Safari in West Palm Beach as a group of clearly intoxicated women flirted with players nearby. "Those are the drunken sluts-they give girls like us a bad name, " says Vaughan. " I definitely separate myself from [the groupies]," says Autumn Kilanowski, 23, who dated a Mets player this year and plans to visit him in New York. So does her roommate Beth Lahtela, 24, who went out with another Met. "We plan to stay in touch," she says. " But you know how that goes. I'm being realistic." Those who aren't can get their hearts broken. Vicky, a 26-year-old actress who goes to spring training in Palm Springs, Calif., says she's been dating a ballplayer for five years, during which time he divorced and married someone else. Why does she stay with him? " I ask myself that one all the time," she says. "I'd say it makes me feel like I'm somebody, but that sounds sick, doesn't it?"
As it happens, marrying a player isn't always bliss. Night games, long absences and the constant swarm of groupies can strain even the best of marriages. "I'll pick up the phone and they'll still ask to speak to him," says Joy Cuyler, wife of Detroit Tigers center-fielder Milt Cuyler. "He'll tell them he's married. The next question is, 'Are you happily married?"' What groupies don't realize is that "you take the baseball away, you take the money away, and you've got an ordinary guy."
Many of the players profess outright disdain for these women. "They're pigs, wenches, whores, water buffaloes, beep, beep, beep," says one Atlanta Braves rookie. Others admit to being tempted by the provocative clothes and come-on stares. "Women are a great release," explains a minor leaguer in the Phillies organization. He says that even in the age of AIDS many players still sleep around, and don't worry about how carousing might affect their playing. And he claims some coaches aren't big on enforcing curfews. " The coaches are out, too. The coaches were players. Is the pot going to call the kettle black?"
Two young women sitting in Cruzan's Liquor Stand in Jensen Beach the night the rape investigation was dropped seemed to understand the rules of the game. Ballplayers who pick up girls in bars "want [sex]-a girl should know that," says Verona Benner, 21. "You can't be calling the next morning. You can't be getting pissed off," agreed her friend Heather Wright, 21. The implication was clear: if you get mixed up in this scene, you've got to know the dangers. Those two, at least, concluded it wasn't worth it.