TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Major league baseball teams started coming to Florida for spring training almost a century ago, traveling by rail from the often still-frozen North to get in shape and play some exhibition games in the sun.
For baseball fans needing an early fix after a long winter, spring training is hard to beat. The weather is almost always sunny and warm (temperatures in the 70s and 80s), the ballparks are cozier than regular stadiums, beer and hot dogs are cheap(er) and everything — parking, tailgating, finding your seats, standing in line for food — is just more laid-back. Many of the seats are so close that fans can hear the on-field chatter. Players haven’t become mired in slumps or losing streaks yet, so most of them don’t mind stopping for autographs.
“It’s very intimate compared to going to a big stadium,” says Julie Baldwin, who lives in suburban Washington D.C. and has come down with her family to root for the Boston Red Sox in some spring games. “Your parking is right there. It’s just easy, everything is so much on a smaller scale and not so daunting.”
In 2012, 15 teams will train beneath the palm trees in central and south Florida, playing a slate of 236 Grapefruit League games throughout March. (The other 15 teams play their preseason games in the Cactus League in Arizona.) For veteran players, it’s a chance to shake out the cobwebs, while rookies and journeymen compete to be one of the 25 guys left standing when the teams break camp.
Nine of the Grapefruit League parks are clustered on or near the state’s west coast, from Dunedin (Toronto Blue Jays), in the Tampa Bay area, south 150 miles or so to Fort Myers. The Minnesota Twins play there at Hammond Stadium, and the Boston Red Sox are this spring debuting a $78 million, 10,000-seat park whose confines are supposed to resemble Fenway Park, complete with a Green Monster left field wall.
The rest of the venues are scattered in central Florida and on the east coast, from the Atlanta Braves’ beautiful park at the Walt Disney World Resort down to Jupiter, just north of West Palm Beach, where the St. Louis Cardinals and rebranded Miami Marlins share training facilities and the 7,000-seat Roger Dean Stadium.
“You’re so close to the field,” said Brian Hurowitz, who has taken an annual trip down with his father from Long Island for the past 20 years or so to see their beloved New York Yankees. “You literally feel like you’re in the fourth or fifth row of the major league stadium, even if you’re in the last row at a minor league ballpark. It’s such a different event.”
Much to the delight of Tampa Bay Rays fans, the team plays its spring games in a terrific refurbished ball park about 75 miles south of the dreary domed stadium in St. Petersburg where they play their regular season home games. The 6,923-seat Charlotte Sports Park has become a fan favorite on the Grapefruit League circuit since the Rays moved in three years ago.
Spring training and some of the stadiums are as much a part of the fabric of their Florida communities as the teams are back in their permanent cities. The Detroit Tigers have trained in Lakeland — between Tampa and Orlando — since 1930 and have played in the current park, Joker Marchant Stadium, since 1966. The Philadelphia Phillies have played in Clearwater since 1947, and the Pittsburgh Pirates have called Bradenton’s McKechnie Field home for the past 43 years, although the place got a complete and much-needed facelift in the 1990s.
The 5,500-seat Florida Auto Exchange Stadium in a residential neighborhood in Dunedin has hosted every player in the history of the Blue Jays organization — it’s been the only spring home for Toronto since the expansion team started up in 1977.
And the New York Yankees have maintained a Florida presence since 1919, moving from Fort Lauderdale in 1996 to an 11,076-capacity park in Tampa that now bears the name of late owner (and beloved local resident) George M. Steinbrenner. It’s the largest park in the Grapefruit League.
Proximity of the parks to each other — especially the ones clustered in the Tampa Bay area — makes a multi-day, multi-park tour relatively easy to plan. Nearby beaches and the central Florida theme parks mean non-baseball fans will find plenty of ways to enjoy the trip, too. Don’t forget the sunscreen.
A word about game tickets: It’s best to buy them online well in advance. Many spring games sell out early, especially the weekend contests. Tickets for Yankees games in Tampa and Red Sox games in Fort Myers are always difficult to find, even for weekday contests. Tickets start at $8 or $9 at some parks, but figure on paying $25 to $30 for really good seats. It’s still a bargain compared to the cost of seats at the big parks.
Spring training makes Florida tourism officials smile, too. The Grapefruit League stadiums host about 1.5 million people every spring, and a 2009 study showed that its annual economic impact is in the neighborhood of $753 million.