Enjoy the drama of major league baseball from way up close-- and for a pittance
Now don't get me wrong: not all spring training camps come cheap. The New York Yankees' facility in Tampa boasts luxury suites, seats 10,000 fans, and is a mini-replica of the Yanks' Bronx home. The Atlanta Braves' state-of-the-art training field in Orlando is the centerpiece of a $100 million sports complex found smack in the middle of Disney World. At both, actual game tickets can run $17, and admission to a mere training session, where you can watch Chipper Jones stretch his quads, can cost $8 and more. But these aren't what you and I mean by "spring training." The 1.5 million baseball buffs who make the annual pilgrimage to Florida from mid-February until March 31 aren't looking for a chance to cozy up in sky booths or with Mickey Mouse. They're seeking out the spring parks of yesteryear - the intimate ones that boast tinny-sounding organs, dugouts that consist of single wooden benches, and (most important) megacheap ticket prices.
The six parks below deliver the low-cost, high-nostalgia version of the great American pastime, and with a little preparation you might even catch your own favorite team as it visits one of these classic spring parks, of which about 20 are scattered throughout the state. (To get you started on designing your fantasy itinerary, just think: Griffey on Monday, McGwire on Tuesday, Jeter on Wednesday.) Training starts mid-February; actual games commence March 1 and run through early April. For exact dates of games involving specific teams, contact either the Tampa Convention and Visitors Association (800/36-TAMPA) or the Florida Sports Foundation (850/488-8347). Both can send you information on schedules, tickets, addresses, maps, and special March events. Tickets are usually easy to secure at the stadium on game days - unless Very Big Name Teams or Very Big Name Players are in town - but to be safe, call ahead.
Dodgertown (Vero Beach)
Los Angeles Dodgers. Ticket information: 561/569-6858. Ticket prices: reserved $12. Places to stay: Howard Johnson, 561/ 567-5171, rooms start at $61; Comfort Inn, 561/569-0900, rooms start at $89; splurge: Palm Court, 561/231-2800, rooms start at $145.
If you're going to get to only one Grapefruit League game, you should do your best to make sure it's at Vero Beach's Dodgertown, where the Dodgers have been playing since 1948 - a year after Jackie Robinson made his debut at Ebbets Field. Generally considered the most famous spring park, Dodgertown consists of the 6,500-seat Holman Stadium, six practice fields, ten batting cages, four pitching tunnels, plus a nine-hole public golf course, restaurant, and lounge. But it's best-known for its player accessibility - all Dodgers live and practice on the Dodgertown grounds - making it feel like a college campus. Fans can chat with players and get their autographs as they walk the 100-yard path from the clubhouse to the stadium.
Holman Stadium features open dugouts (so the players are always in full view) and was the first to create a berm, the raised grassy area beyond the outfield where fans can picnic and spread out blankets while watching the game.
Jack Russell Memorial Stadium (Clearwater)
Philadelphia Phillies. Ticket information: 727/442-8496. Ticket prices: box seats $12, lower reserved $11, upper reserved $9, reserved $6. Places to stay: Ramada Inn, 727/446-2688, rooms start at $119; Days Inn, 727/447-8444, rooms start at $115.
Built in 1955, 6,900-seat Jack Russell Memorial Stadium is brimming with old-world charm. On the first-base-side stands, right below a giant marquee reading, "The Way Baseball Was Meant to Be," sits 80-year-old Wilbur Snapp, the organ master who has been pounding out ballpark tunes for almost two decades. Jack Russell Stadium is also one of the few stadiums whose concession stand has imported the team's local flavor (Philly cheese-steaks, of course) to satisfy homesick fans.
One of the beautiful things about spring training is the casual attitude adopted by the ushers who seem more concerned about catching the game themselves than making sure you're in the right seat with the right ticket.
When I recently arrived at the entrance to a sold-out Phillies-Yankee game without tickets, an usher asked an early departing fan to give me his ticket stub - so I got in for free. You might not be so lucky, but at the very least, remember that there's room to negotiate.
For information on special events, like the annual "Meet the Phillies" day (including clubhouse tours, fireworks, and games for kids), call 727/441-8638.
Joker Marchant Stadium, Tigertown (Lakeland)
Detroit Tigers. Ticket information: 863/603-6278, 863/688-7911. Ticket prices: reserved $8, general admission $5. Where to stay: Days Inn, 863/682-0303, doubles $50; Diplomat Inn, 863/688-7972, rooms start at $69; Howard Johnson, 863/682-0101, rooms start at $45.
"The ultimate spring training ballpark is one that has a special relationship with the community," says Nick Gandy, president of the Florida Sports Foundation. Joker Marchant Stadium, the Detroit Tigers' spring home since 1934, is the quintessential example, holding the record for the longest ballpark-franchise relationship in spring baseball history. Every year the Chamber of Commerce throws a kick off barbecue for fans and players. (Call 863/688-8551 for details.) In return, the Tigers also host the Major League Scramble where community members (and visitors) can win a chance to play golf with their favorite players. Last year, all-star slugger Juan Gonzales was the grand prize partner. (Call 863/534-4372 for information.)
In the stadium, 7,000 bright orange-and-blue seats offset the shock of brilliant green grass. (You won't find any artificial turf around here.) With your typical March game day in Florida being sunny and 77 degrees, a game at Tigertown may just make you the happiest fan since Rudy Giuliani at the 2000 Subway Series. And the experience is only getting better. They plan on funneling $9 million into the stadium to enhance seating and create a berm in left field.
Osceola County Stadium (Kissimmee, near Orlando)
Houston Astros. Ticket information: 407/933-2520. Ticket prices: box seats $12, reserved $10, general admission $7. Places to stay: Quality Inn Conference Center, 407/846-4545, rooms start at $59; Holiday Inn, 407/846-4646, rooms start at $49; Travelodge, 407/846-1530, rooms start at $55.
This will be the 16th spring training season for the Astros at 5,100-seat Osceola County Stadium (the smallest in the league), another ballpark that prides itself on player accessibility. From mid-February through March, Astrophiles are allowed to watch every workout - no charge. Even on game days, when the gates open at 11 a.m., you can watch both teams take batting practice. And unlike the newer stadiums, neither the home nor the visiting clubhouse is connected to dugouts, so players must walk outside with the fans where they will often sign autographs and pose for photographs. There are also autograph opportunities after the game in a roped-off area outside the clubhouse.
The park itself, with pine trees lining the outfield, is considered one of the most picturesque for fans. It's also family-friendly. In left field at the end of the grandstand there's a fenced-off playground (with attendant) so parents have the option to drop off kids who might not want to sit through a game.
McKechnie Field (Bradenton)
Pittsburgh Pirates. Ticket information: 941/748-4610. Ticket prices: box seats $9, reserved $8, reserved general admission $6. Places to stay: Quality Inn and Suites, 941/747-6465, rooms start at $45; Days Inn, 941/ 746-1141, rooms start at $69.99; Holiday Inn, 941/747-3727, rooms start at $127.
Built in 1923 (and home to the Pirates since 1969), the 6,600-seat Spanish-mission-style McKechnie Field was renovated in 1993 with careful attention to preserving the intimate, old-time atmosphere that led USA Today to dub it "the Fenway of spring parks." Members of the neighboring Boys and Girls Club like to take in the games through a large hole in the left field fence (deliberately created by the Pirates), but for a reasonable $6 general admission ticket, I recommend taking a seat - there's not a bad one in the house. The 1993 renovation provided McKechnie with a state-of-the-art P.A. system, but you won't find them blaring it obnoxiously like they do at the slick new parks. "We try to maintain a relaxed, family environment," says a spokesperson.
Diehard Pirate followers may want to mark their 2002 calendars for the annual "fantasy camp" in which amateurs can play aging professionals (this year's was January 14-21). And this year, McKechnie will be hosting an array of 30th anniversary celebrations to commemorate the Pirates' 1971 championship team. For more information on special events, call 941/747-3031.
Chain of Lakes Park (Winter Haven)
Cleveland Indians. Ticket information: 863/293-3900. Ticket prices: berm seating $5 to lower box seats $13. Places to stay: Howard Johnson, 863/294-7321, rooms start at $90; Best Western, 863/ 324-5950, rooms start at $95.
The 7,000-seat stadium situated next to scenic Lake Lulu was built in 1966 and has been home to the Indians for nine years - ever since the Boston Red Sox left for ritzier digs in Fort Myers. Retaining its golden-era magic is so important to Cleveland's Chain Of Lakes Park that authorities are actually considering replacing the electronic scoreboard with a manual one. As Florida operations manager Jerry Crabb says, "We want the experience to be how we all remember baseball." That means more organ music than Top 40 hits. It also means opening the park in mid-February so baseball enthusiasts can wander the grounds and watch players practice - for free. They keep up this policy throughout March, except on game days when fans must pay to get into the stadium.
Winter Haven's Chamber of Commerce kicks off the season with a barbecue on the Wednesday before opening day for players and fans. Information is available through the Chamber of Commerce at 863/293-2138.