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Baseball fanatics love getting up close and personal with a major leaguer. And only during spring training can fans sit in the bleachers, talk to their favorite players and even get an autograph or two.
Spring training games do not count in a team’s overall record. But the six weeks are important. Managers evaluate players and young stars get a chance to prove their talent.
The Grapefruit League calls Florida home. Teams -- including the Atlanta Braves, the Boston Red Sox, the Minnesota Twins and many more play in the Sunshine State. Three time zones away, fans of the Cactus League in Arizona cheer on the Chicago Cubs, and the Colorado Rockies among others.
But Florida and Arizona just isn't ideal for ball players. Spring training is also a big win for families who are looking for a vacation and a reasonable way to catch a game.
“If you’re in the northeast and it’s been winter since November you might want to take a little break from that and come to Florida where you can sit in the sunshine. Spring training sites are much smaller and a more inmate atmosphere than a regular season stadium,” said Nick Gandy of Florida sports promotion organization for the state of Florida.
Now -- travel companies, hotels and the MLB teams are monopolizing on these loyal spectators.
“Whether you’re a man or a woman, these are phenomenal areas to go,” Joe Megibow, VP and general manager of Expedia.com said about cities in both Florida and Arizona. “These are two hot destinations – especially in the case of Phoenix because spring training is so compressed there.”
There currently are 21 MLB Clubs offering Spring Training travel packages. (You can find them all here.) Packages vary, but many include choice of accommodations, rental car deals, team merchandise, and of course tickets to games. Hotels, spas and resorts offer their own packages, with add-ons like spa treatments, dinners or a day on the golf course.
Darlene Limon from the InterContinental Tampa property says travel packages catering to baseball fans are the best selling leisure packages. “We would suggest booking rooms as soon as the spring training schedule is released, and highly recommend booking mid-week games as quickly as possible,” said Limon.
Joe Megibow of Expedia.com would agree. He says if you’re a fan with a flexible schedule – travel mid-week. “Most importantly -- book early. Especially getting into Easter weekend, and people making spring break plans,” he said. “These are popular destinations anyway. The earlier you can get booked the better, and of course - inventory can be limited.”
InterContinental Tampa guests don’t have to go far to catch a game at George Steinbrenner Field (formally Legends Field) to watch the New York Yankees. The Blue Jays, the Phillies and the Tigers aren’t too far. But if you’re partial to the East coast of Florida – you can still catch a game there. Jupiter’s Roger Dean Stadium is home to both the Miami Marlins and the St. Louis Cardinals during the spring.
The Jupiter Beach Resort & Spa resort is just six miles from the stadium and it’s been offering deals to baseball fans for the past three years because of demand. The Play Ball package, for example, offers attractive room rates, breakfast for two, a baseball-themed welcome gift and food discounts at Roger Dean Stadium.
“The packages are very popular among guests and we are already seeing travelers take advantage of the Spring Training offers,” said Jeff Castner, the general manager of Jupiter Beach Resort & Spa.
“Even non-baseball fans find an afternoon at Roger Dean Stadium to be a fun experience. With the recent World Series victory of the St. Louis Cardinals, and the strong following of the Miami Marlins, we are seeing customers book earlier this year, and an increasing number taking advantage of the two special packages.”
And on the other side of the nation, Arizona cities capitalize on offering gorgeous hiking trails, rolling golf courses and world-famous spas to lure baseball gurus.
“The entire Valley of the Sun is the hot spot when it comes to being close to the action,” said Michelle Streeter from the Mesa Arizona Convention and Visitors Bureau. “There are now 10 stadiums throughout the region and all offer a unique ambience and feel.”
She said families who are traveling during spring break seek out a resort that includes children’s offerings and entertainment. Guys usually want to hit the golf course in the morning and catch baseball in the afternoon and stay in properties that have courses on-site.
In Phoenix and areas of Scottsdale, resorts offer a variety of packages for men and women year-round that have spa and golf themes.
“The draw for spring training in Arizona is that visitors can count on near perfect weather and seek refuge from the winter,” Streeter said. “It’s just a comfortable and casual way to enjoy the sport. The stadiums offer a truly intimate experience that puts an emphasis on the fan.”
But the greatest attraction of all: the games. They're played around 1p.m. in the afternoon so families can take advantage of popular tourism hot spots across the state before and after the games.
And who doesn't love the intimacy fans get with the players.
In Florida, the largest stadium is seats around 10,000 to 11,000 fans, while during regular season the stadiums seat around 50,000.
“Players will come over unsolicited and sign an autograph for a kid,” Gandy said.
Just like old-time baseball.