By Barry Blair
While we suffered through this cold winter with its arctic blasts coming down on us, die hard baseball fans were anxiously awaiting Truck Day.
If you don’t know, it is the day that major league teams load all their gear and equipment onto trucks to make the move to Florida and Arizona for the much anticipated opening of Spring Training. Some teams celebrate this moment with videos and pictures posted onto social media. Not long after this, pitchers and catchers reported to camp. For baseball fans, it means the game is on, a new season is upon us. Hope springs eternal, no matter who your team is.
Make no doubt about it, spring training has become a big business. Over 1.7 million fans in Florida along with over two million in Arizona attended games last season. The state of Florida estimates that spring baseball generates over $750 million dollars in their state. Newer and more modern facilities have been springing up all over, as communities work to keep the teams they have, or lure in a new one.
The Atlanta Braves are leaving their long-time home at Disney in Orlando for a new, team-owned facility near Sarasota. When the Braves move after this spring, it means that all the Florida teams will be located on either the east or west coasts of that state. No more teams will be located in the middle. Last year the Houston Astros left Kissimmee and the Washington Nationals left Melbourne and moved into a new shared facility in Palm Beach.
For the past several years, since I retired and started writing, we have made the trip to the Tampa area to check out the action, along with a stop in Orlando (either coming or going as the Braves are my favorite team). Great baseball, food, shopping, a day trip to the beach, it’s all there for you, whatever you like to do. And it is warm, something that is appealing to me. So let’s talk about what you can see and do in that area of Florida.
We operate out of Tampa, staying just down the street from the Yankees’ spring training home, George Steinbrenner Field. From there you are no more than a little over an hour from five other major league teams.
The Toronto Blue Jays are in the town of Dunedin, within just a few miles of the Philadelphia Phillies in Clearwater, both just across the bay. The Detroit Tigers are just back up Interstate 4 in the town of Lakeland. If you go another 40 miles or so east of there, you can find the Braves in the Disney/ESPN Wide World of Sports complex on the western edge of Orlando. Down Interstate 75, south from Tampa, are the Pittsburgh Pirates in Bradenton and the Baltimore Orioles in Sarasota. If you want to venture even further south on I-75 you can see the Tampa Bay Rays, the Minnesota Twins, and the Boston Red Sox.
When the teams open their spring training camps, they have around 60 men competing for a chance to make the opening day 25 man roster. In reality, probably 20 of those spots are already penciled in, and everybody else is competing for one of the remaining jobs, or fighting for positioning on the team’s minor league rosters.
Some are veterans battling to stay in the big leagues, hoping a good spring will open an opportunity up for them, or give them a chance to be picked up to fill a need on another team. Some will opt to go back to AAA, hoping to be quickly recalled once the regular season starts. You see scouts from other teams watching all the games. Every at-bat or chance to pitch is an audition for a job for many of these players.
With so many players on the roster at the start, you may not see your favorite guy in action, especially if he is an established star and the team is traveling that day. On days that they play away, you can go to the team’s home ballpark early in the morning and see many of your favorite players, who didn’t make the day trip, working out, taking batting practice, or taking infield.
The pitchers will be on a back field throwing or working on infield plays. Later they will show up and do their running in the outfield. Up-and-coming minor leaguers will be working on the back fields as well. The Disney complex is a good place to roam around and watch this action. If you were a fan of John Gruden’s QB Camps on ESPN, you will recognize this area, as they are located side by side, right behind the Braves stadium.
The later in the spring you go, as the rosters get cut down, the more you will see the established stars play as they get ready for the season.
So, if you are a big fan, it is a great place to watch a lot of baseball. If you are a collector, it is a great place to interact with players coming and going from the fields, most of whom will, within reason, stop and sign cards, balls, or whatever it is you might want autographed, or pose for pictures. Coaches and managers abound, most of whom are former major leaguers, and they will sign as well. Always remember, that these guys are working, so be respectful of that.
Around the ballparks, it is not unusual to run into former stars, who are brought back to spring training as guest instructors or are working as announcers.
The Bowman sets offer cards of the top players on the minor league teams, many of whom are getting a look here by the big league clubs. Do your homework and anticipate who you may have an opportunity to see. Want a souvenir baseball of your spring training trip? If you are not lucky enough to catch a foul ball, be on the lookout when you leave as there will be youngsters hawking the balls that were hit out of the smaller parks. They are regulation Major League baseballs with a stamp on them with the Grapefruit League logo. You can usually barter them down to sell you one for $10. They have been outside running them down while you enjoyed the game.
Most teams offer a VIP package that gives you on-field access to batting practice and the opportunity to talk and mingle with the players as they come and go to the cage. Inquire with the individual teams about this program. The stadiums usually open two hours prior to the first pitch so you can watch batting practice. Some players will sign while this goes on.
Tickets to spring training games? You better plan and buy ahead to assure yourself of a seat. In the Tampa area, any games involving the Yankees and Red Sox stand a good chance of being sold out.
A couple of years back we went to a Phillies-Pirates game in Bradenton with no tickets in hand. It was sold out at the box office and luckily we located two off of a guy outside just after the game had started. It was our first trip there, and the crowd was split down the middle, black and gold for the Pirates on the first base side, red for the Phillies on the third base line. A full house and a great crowd it was.
Dunedin is one of my favorite places to go. Get there early enough and park right across the street in the VFW’s parking lot. They invite you into their club, as they are serving food and drinks before the game. A highlight here is the playing of the United States and Canadian national anthems. Don’t be surprised to be outnumbered and outdone by the Canadians.
The stadiums are manned by retirees, and most of them are fun to talk and gather local information from. Being a writer, and having an inquisitive nature, I am always asking people about where they are from. There are lots of interesting people all around the spring training stadiums, with great stories to tell. Most of them I have found, by the way, are not originally from Florida.
I mentioned Steinbrenner Field earlier. Of course it is the largest of the spring training stadiums, with a two floor gift shop. It is a great place in the early morning to go watch the Yankees work out on the side fields. I got a picture of Reggie Jackson and Derek Jeter chatting around the batting cage early one morning during Jeter’s last season. It is one of my favorites. I thought to myself, man the baseball history between those two guys, as I snapped away.
Last year fans paid little attention to a little known Yankees rookie by the name of Aaron Judge. It won’t be that way for him this year.
Inside the stadium, it is another story. The ushers here are nothing like at the other stadiums where everything is pretty laid back. I think they bring these guys down from Yankee Stadium for the spring. No access to the players here unless you have a ticket on the front row.
Lakeland is also a good place to go on a morning the Tigers are working out, or part of the team is traveling, and the rest have stayed behind. You can go right in and watch them work. From there you can make a short trip of 30 minutes to an hour to catch a game at another park. Most games start at 1 p.m., but some are played at night, so you can actually catch an early morning workout, then two games in one day. You just have to hustle around a bit.
The Orioles stadium in Sarasota is another top place to watch a game. It is here that I observed Don Zimmer, in his 80s, in uniform, working with the Tampa Bay hitters at the cage before their game with the O’s. He was there as a spring training coach for Joe Maddon, at that time the Ray’s manager. The players were stopping and listening to him offer advice, and he would swing a bat showing them just what he was talking about. He then made his way to the dugout and chatted with the assembled media.
I wondered if he had rode the bus over with the team and what a treat that would be for the guys. Only in spring training will you see that. Again, think of the baseball history this guy had been a part of, starting with the Dodgers as a player in the 1950s, along with his famous stints managing the Cubs and the Red Sox, and coaching with Joe Torre’s Yankees. So here he was, some 60 years later, not long before his death, still teaching, still taking part in the game. These are things you will see only in spring training. If you get the chance, make the trip—I guarantee you will not regret it.
Barry Blair is a writer/author who is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or check out his website, www.rightfieldpress.com.