Thursday, March 12, 2009

Boys of Summer in Spring

I find myself going through a little bit of withdrawal as spring approaches. For the last two springs I have gone to Major League Baseball’s Spring Training in Florida and had the time of my life.

I have been a MLB fan for a long time and have been visiting their various ballparks for a number of years now. I try to add at least one each year, but knocked off three last year with Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia and Yankee and Shea Stadiums in New York, the final seasons for those two venerable old parks.

Until two years ago, though, I had never been to a Spring Training game. I am now hooked and regret that this year, with Younger Son not having his spring break until April, I won’t be going.

In 2007 I took a week off work and took Younger Son, then 14, and two of his buddies. We holed up in a cheap condo in Kissimme (near Orlando) and ventured out from there to the games, all of which were close by or were easy day trips. To give the trip some variety, we spent a day each at Walt Disney World (two parks and only hit high points) and Universal Studios Islands of Adventure. We went to four games total.

Last year, I couldn’t swing the entire week off at the time, so Wife and Younger Son drove down and I flew mid-week and met them in Kissimme. We went by approximately the same plan as the previous year, except we were a little more hard-core with baseball and only did one theme park day, at Disney (and we upgraded our accommodations a bit since Wife was along). The two of them went to six games and I made four, and we ventured a little farther south into Florida (Jupiter) for one of the games. Wife became totally indoctrinated and was keeping scores and stats by the end of the week. She is itching to go back just as I am.

For those who might want to consider such a trip, I recommend Alan Byrd’s splendid book,Florida Spring Training. I read it cover to cover before I took the first trip two years ago and used it as my main guide both years. Amazon still lists it as “Third Edition” which is the one I have, but I’m guessing there will be a newer one coming out soon as there have been at least a couple of changes since the last printing (e.g. the Dodgers are no longer doing Spring Training in Florida and the Rays, who used to play their spring games in St. Pete, have moved to Port Charlotte).

In preparation for the book, Byrd, the poor guy, visited every venue in the Grapefruit League, sat in the bleachers and sampled the food and beer. The result is a concise summary of each park and a ranking of his most to least favorite.

He includes tons of helpful information, including purchasing tickets, directions, parking tips, best seats, players’ accessibility for autographs and, of course, his own food and beer preferences. He also gives great tips for nearby attractions and restaurants and includes some sample itineraries for those trying to attend games and take in other sights.

The ballparks are as varied as the teams and therein lies much of much of the fun in this trip. I still have not been to all of the Spring Training parks. We have only gone as far south as Jupiter, which is where the Cardinals and Marlins play.

The ones I like best are the small, minor league-like venues where you are close to the players and they will generally be generous with the autographs. They will also occasionally toss a ball into the stands. Good examples (and my favorites) are Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter (Cardinals and Marlins) and Osceola County Stadium in Kissimme (Astros). Both are great little parks, each holding a few thousand and there’s not a bad seat in either place. The typical baseball fare of ‘dogs, burgers, peanuts and beer are in abundance.

Roger Dean Stadium sits right in the middle of the beautiful little town of Jupiter, just a few miles from the beach. There are all kinds of shops, restaurants and sports bars in the vicinity. Osceola County Stadium sits sedately out in an industrial and residential area of Kissimme, and there is not much there except the ballpark.

The antitheses of these two fields are George Steinbrenner Field in Tampa (Yankees) and Champion Stadium in Buena Vista (Braves). Steinbrenner holds about 11,000 and strikes me as a miniature Yankee Stadium. It is right across the street from the football field where the Tampa Bay Bucs play, and in fact you park there and walk across a sky bridge to get to the baseball stadium.

There is no chance of getting an autograph at Steinbrenner Field. Games there, in my opinion, feel more like a regular season MLB game than Spring Training. There are many food and drink offerings. Don’t get me wrong, it is loads of fun; I just prefer the smaller Spring Training parks.

Champion Stadium, spring home for the Atlanta Braves, is located in Walt Disney World’s Wide World of Sports complex and seats about 10,000. Going there is just like a trip to Disney World – you will be entertained, but you’ll be in a large crowd. You will sit in a long line of traffic to park in a field about a mile from the ballpark, stand in a line to board a shuttle to get there, then stand in another line to get through the ticket turnstile. The food is plentiful and varied but it’s not cheap. The stadium itself is beautiful, built in Spanish Hacienda architecture. Although you can sit relatively close to the field, this is not a good park for autograph seekers.

One of my regrets is never making it to Dodger Town, near Vero Beach, where for years the L.A. Dodgers held their spring camp. It was apparently a cool little complex that included a Dodger museum. The Dodgers packed up and headed for the Cactus League in Arizona a couple of years ago.

Byrd points out in his book that, unfortunately, many of the teams’ spring homes have gone the way of their larger home field counterparts, with corporate sponsorships and luxury boxes. He believes this takes away from the traditional Spring Training aura and I agree.

Still, for die-hard baseball fans -- and even those not as fanatical but who would enjoy a spring vacation to Florida before the crowds and heat are quite so intense -- a trip to Spring Training is a real treat. I am looking forward to going back.

(Lest you feel too sorry for me with this year’s late spring break, I am headed to Boston’s classic Fenway Park in April to see the Red Sox. I am typically not an American League guy, but my sons have had Fenway at the top of their list for a long time).


Redlefty said...

That is just too awesome. I am now dreaming of doing that with one or more of my kids in the future.

Kelly said...

I always enjoy seeing what you have on your bookshelf.

I use to snap up the Grishams as soon as they were in paperback, but it's been awhile since I read one. The Broker and The Appeal are both sitting in my "to read" pile.

I'm up to date on the Sue Grafton books, I think. She puts them out so seldom now I don't always know when there's a new one.

As for baseball... I've never been much of a fan, but you almost make it sound appealing with this post! The only park I think I've ever been to was Busch Stadium in St. Louis when I was 10 years old! No, wait... I did see a game at the Astrodome, too.

Bob said...

Kelly, I'm a big Grisham fan. Susan and I generally use the library but we always by the new Grisham book when it comes out. This one's a page turner.

I had never read any of the Alphabet Mysteries by Grafton but Susan started them last year and said they were good. I started with A and enjoyed it.

Give baseball a chance! :-)

Steve H. said...

Bob...Just reading your post I can smell spring in the air and hear the crack of a bat! I need to take my son down for spring training but its hard to do now that we moved to China! :)

BTW, I have a Fantasy Baseball league on MLB and need some more players if you are interested. Its free, fun, and easy. Let me know

Bob said...

Steve, would love to try the MLB fantasy league. Details please. I can give you an e-mail address if I need to.

quid said...

You are so right about Legends field. Just a mini-Yankee domain, and a gift from the taxpayers of Tampa to Grandpa George Steinbrenner (who, to be fair, has been a huge supporter of Bay area charities).

On April 1, with brother Gary (and his new female companion...did she really have to come?) I'll get to take in the Rays-Twins game in the Port Charlotte venue. Am so looking forward to it.


Bob said...

Quid, first spring training game I ever went to was the Rays -- Progress Energy Park in St. Pete. Byrd (the author I referenced) does not like this park, said it was a lot of concrete. I liked it, though, especially watching the boats just beyond the outfield. Glad you are getting to go to the new one. Maybe we can meet at a future spring training game! :-)
(And be kind to the new female companion . . .)

Steve H. said...


I have 2 spots left in the league. E-mail me your e-mail to: