Spring training gives Major League Baseball players a chance to bond while soaking up sunshine.
The team managers encourage the veterans and rookies to create some “chemistry that will really help them play well and support each other during the season,” says Laura Posada, whose husband Jorge, catcher for the New York Yankees, reports to Tampa for spring training this week.
While it’s not all fun and games – “spring training is really hard work,” Posada adds, noting that Jorge’s day may go from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., or later – spring training is also a chance for players and their families to spend time together, she says. Likewise, the opportunity to bond with fellow fans and, perhaps, some players, is why every March more than 1.5 million travelers head to Florida to watch Grapefruit League games, and around the same amount flock to Arizona to check out action in the Cactus League.
The intimacy of spring training has a lot to do with the relatively modest size of the Florida and Arizona stadiums, says Alan Byrd, author of “Florida Spring Training: Your Guide to Touring the Grapefruit League,” who has gone to hundreds of spring training games since 1977. Among Byrd’s favorite parks is Osceola County Stadium in Kissimmee, Fla., where the Houston Astros train. “I get to the park about an hour and a half early and watch these guys take batting practice,” Byrd says. “The furthest seat in Kissimmee is 50-100 feet from the field. Often you’ll have opportunities to talk with the players…and get their autographs. You’re watching them so close you can hear every pop of the ball in the glove.”
While spring training is just around the corner, there’s still time to put together a last-minute baseball-themed vacation. And if you can't swing it this season, the boys of summer head south each year as reliably as migrating birds start heading north.
Pick a hotel that suits your plans.
If you need to jump start your planning, consider booking a spring training travel package through MLB.com. Also look to your favorite hotel chains for specials. For instance, Phillies fans can tap into a deal at the Hyatt Regency Clearwater Beach Resort that includes game tickets and a rental car, and Hilton Garden Inn in Sarasota is bundling a room with Pirates tickets and transportation to and from McKechnie Field. If you’re not getting a car as part of a package, absolutely rent one before you go.
Byrd observes that Florida’s ballparks fall fairly neatly into four clusters: central Florida, the Tampa area, southwest Florida, and the state’s eastern coast. Pick one whose nearby sites also pack appeal for you, as you won’t be watching baseball all the time. While you can ballpark hop and see night games, you probably won’t average more than one game a day, usually from about 1-4 p.m.
If you already have a trip planned to the Orlando theme parks, it helps to know that the Braves train at Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex, accessible by shuttle bus throughout Disney property. If the Yankees are playing at their Tampa home stadium of George M. Steinbrenner (aka Legends) Field, Posada tries to mix her family’s game-watching time with visits to Busch Gardens and likewise will try to hit the Orlando parks or St. Petersburg and Clearwater beaches if traveling to games there.
Baseball fan Dennis Salguero traveled to Arizona in 2008 to watch spring training and made Tempe his base “and that proved to be a wonderful idea because it’s central to all the games. From Tempe, you’re close to Peoria (Padres and Mariners), Surprise (Royals and Rangers) and Scottsdale (Giants).” Mixing in non-baseball pleasures wasn’t an issue, either, as he and his wife “took the ‘scenic’ view back and headed north to Flagstaff and then on to the Grand Canyon’s south rim. You can watch a lot of baseball and visit the Grand Canyon all in one week’s worth of spring break travel.”
Know the deal with tickets.
It’s a good idea to buy at least some of your game tickets through MLB.com before leaving home. Yankees and Red Sox seats can sell out as early as January when tickets go on sale, but given there are 30 teams training - 15 each in Arizona and Florida - you ought to be able to score at least some of the seats you want. Ticket prices can be upwards of $30 but usually hover in the $15-20 range. As with the major stadiums, you’ll find reserved boxes and levels as well as general admission seats. But unlike the majors, you might find standing room only-admission as well as inexpensive lawn seating or, in the case of Hi Corbett Field in Tucson, where the Colorado Rockies train, you can sit on a sand pile for just $4.
Salguero didn’t buy game tickets before heading to Arizona but recalls that tickets were “easy to come by. You can always just walk up and buy them. You might not always get the section you want, but the stadiums are really small so there are not many bad seats. I don’t think we paid more than $15-$18 for any one ticket, and many were in the $12 range.”
Know the secret strategies and spots.
If you’re hoping to get a glimpse of your favorite team’s heavy hitters, bear in mind that they’re usually played in the first five innings, after which they’ll sometimes leave, Posada says. Byrd concurs that by that point in the game “most of the regular players have sat down” but if you stick around after that you’ll be “seeing the future of the team.” Salguero made his Arizona trip late in March, which was nice because that’s when the starting lineups are being worked out and the ‘no name’ players have been cut.” Byrd says that getting access to players in Legends Field can sometimes be difficult, as fans are not often permitted in the lower levels without a ticket. However, the Yanks play many of their games at Dunedin Stadium, which is “very friendly for access to players,” he says.
Relax your expectations.
Before the Dodgers moved to Arizona for spring training, Byrd recalls seeing then-Dodger Nomar Garciaparra follow a specific routine at spring training games in Vero Beach. After stretching, Garciaparra would walk “straight on to the stands and move either to left or to the right,” signing autographs. “You start learning players’ tendencies. You might not get [an autograph] the first time but you might get it the second time.”
Posada concurs that it’s important to “relax your expectations a little bit. When you travel with kids they’re really excited about getting autographs, and sometimes you really can’t get access to the players.” But if you do meet a player, Posada says, be polite, a notion seconded by Byrd, who recalls going to a Red Sox game at Winter Haven’s Chain of Lakes Park (the Sox now train at City of Palms Park in Ft. Myers). Byrd was a third grader at the time, hoping to get an autograph from outfielder Jim Rice. But on his way to get the autograph, Byrd was stopped by Red Sox Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski.
Recalls Byrd, Yastrzemski “looked down at me and said, ‘Son, Jimmy had a bad game today. It might be best if you didn’t get his autograph today.’ My response: ‘OK.’ I then walked away, not asking Carl Yastrzemski for his signature. After all, I wanted Jim Rice. He was my hero.”