Opening day for Major League Baseball is April 6. But fans don't have to wait that long to see their favorite teams. Spring training games are scheduled from Feb. 25 to April 5 in Florida and Arizona.
In Florida, attendance at so-called Grapefruit League games averages a total of 1.56 million each spring. In Arizona, the Cactus League set an attendance record of 1.31 million fans in 2008.
Kevin Reichard, author of "The Complete Guide to Spring Training" (August Publications, $14.95), says there are even more opportunities than usual this year for travelers interested in spring training. For one thing, "this is the longest spring training period in years," he said. In addition, he said, ticket sales "are a little bit slower because of the economy."
Premium seats usually sell out fast, and it can also be hard to get tickets for a few teams like the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants. But for others, regular seats will be available right up until game day.
And prices for most games are reasonable. General attendance or lawn seating is $10 or less for many games, and the stadiums are smaller, minor league-size arenas where you're never too far away from the action.
Highest-priced tickets for most teams do not exceed $20 or $22, though the Yankees have a $35 category and the Los Angeles Dodgers made news this year by charging $90 for the best 692 seats in their new Glendale, Ariz., facility. The $90 pricetag includes a $20 coupon for food, beverages and merchandise, free parking and other freebies - a hat, water, sunscreen and cool, scented towels. The top ticket in their old spring training stadium in Vero Beach, Fla., was a mere $20, but with no perks.
In both states, many spring-training facilities are geographically so close that you could see several different teams play over the course of a week without driving too far. In Arizona, two teams play in Tucson and the other 14 play in the Phoenix metro area. Although spring training facilities for the 16 teams that play in Florida are located around the state, many are within a half-hour drive of two or three others.
"You could schedule an entire vacation around spring training for baseball fans," said Lauren Tjaden, a sports and adventure expert for VisitFlorida.com. "You've got three or more teams playing very close together, so you could go to a different team in a different city every day - the Blue Jays in Dunedin, the Phillies in Clearwater, the Yankees in Tampa, the Detroit Tigers in Lakeland."
Tjaden added that "one of the really fun games" scheduled for this season is the March 12 faceoff in Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, Fla., between the 2008 World Series rivals, the Tampa Bay Rays and the Philadelphia Phillies.
Spring training also offers opportunities for fans to see their favorite players up close. "It depends on the team, but for instance, the Detroit Tigers have an autograph area at the ballpark," Reichard said. "The other way to get close to the players is to go to workouts in the mornings. Every team does it a little different, but if you go to a workout at say 9:30 a.m., you might see them running, fielding, bunting and doing other drills. Sometimes the players will come by the fence to greet the fans."
Reichard's "Complete Guide to Spring Training" book also includes listings for "places where the true fans hang out before the game," such as Lenny's in Clearwater, where Phillies' fans can eat that Pennsylvania favorite, scrapple. In Bradenton, Popi's is where Pirates players can be found at breakfast time.
Reichard said most of the spring training games are "run in a low-key fashion. There's no entertainment between the innings, for example." But some of the ballparks are kid-friendly. "In Kissimmee, the Astros have a huge play area, and where the Braves play, they have an outdoor barn where kids can run around," he said.
The big news this year in spring training was moves by four teams. In addition to the Dodgers' relocation to Glendale, the White Sox also moved to Glendale, from Tucson; the Cleveland Indians moved from Winter Haven, Fla., to Goodyear, Ariz.; and the Rays shifted from St. Petersburg down the west coast of Florida to Port Charlotte.
On top of the Dodgers, White Sox and Indians, Arizona's spring training season also features the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies in Tucson, the Milwaukee Brewers and Oakland Athletics in Phoenix, the Kansas City Royals and Texas Rangers in Surprise, the Los Angeles Angels in Tempe, the San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners in Peoria, the San Francisco Giants in Scottsdale, and the Chicago Cubs in Mesa.
In Florida, in addition to the Detroit Tigers in Lakeland, the Toronto Blue Jays in Dunedin, the Phillies in Clearwater, the Yankees in Tampa, and the Pirates in Bradenton, fans can also catch the Cincinnati Reds in Sarasota, the Red Sox and Minnesota Twins in Fort Myers, the Houston Astros and Atlanta Braves in Kissimmee, the Washington Nationals in Viera, the New York Mets in Port St. Lucie, the St. Louis Cardinals and Florida Marlins in Jupiter, and the Baltimore Orioles in Fort Lauderdale.
Next year, the Reds join the Indians in Goodyear, leaving each state with 15 teams.
For schedules, ticketing and other details visit http://floridaspringtraining.com and http://www.cactusleague.com/c-about.php . Packages and details on related attractions can also be found on the state tourism Web sites, http://www.visitflorida.com and http://www.arizonaguide.com. The Major League Baseball Web site, http://www.mlb.com, also has spring training information.