Spring Training Road Trip
By JG Walker. Previously published in the 2016 Winter Issue.
For some sports lovers, it’s an annual tradition, a seasonal marker of fresh renewal that separates the old from the new. For others, it’s a “bucket list” desire, one of those many things that we say we’ll get around to doing one of these days when we’re not so busy.
But for ideal-LIVING readers, it’s the perfect “doubleheader”—the chance to explore one of two possible destinations and have some reinvigorating fun along the way. Heck, you can even take the grandkids along for the ride.
Grapefruit and Cactus
For more than 120 years, professional baseball players have been leaving their chilly hometowns in early February for a trip to the sunnier side of America. And for nearly as long, baseball fans who have had to live with the hope of “wait until next year” since the fall, can finally shed their winter coats and cock their ears for the most anticipated pronouncement in all of sports: “Play ball!”
There are 30 Major League Baseball (MLB)teams and, starting every year around Valentine’s Day, the players and coaches for half of them head down to Florida, while the balance go to Arizona, to get ready for spring training. In the Sunshine State, clubs play in the Grapefruit League—15 teams in 14 facilities that stretch in an arc from the southern Gulf Coast, up through Orlando, and back down the Atlantic shoreline. Following that path, you’ll find the Boston Red Sox and the Minnesota Twins in Fort Myers, with the Tampa Bay Rays in nearby Port Charlotte. The Tampa-St. Petersburg area hosts the Baltimore Orioles (Sarasota), Pittsburg Pirates (Bradenton), New York Yankees (Tampa), Toronto Blue Jays (Dunedin), and Philadelphia Phillies (Clearwater). The Detroit Tigers train in Lakeland on the way to the Orlando area, which has the Houston Astros in Kissimmee and the Atlanta Braves in Lake Buena Vista. Along the eastern “Treasure Coast” of Florida are the Washington Nationals in Viera and the New York Mets in Port St. Lucie, while the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals have a two-team training facility in Jupiter.
All 15 MLB teams in the Arizona Cactus League work out in the greater Phoenix-Scottsdale area, including 10 that share a training site: the Cincinnati Reds and Cleveland Indians (Goodyear), the Kansas City Royals, and Texas Rangers (Surprise), the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers (Glendale), San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners (Peoria), and the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies (Talking Stick). The balance of the western competitors are the Chicago Cubs and Oakland Athletics in separate Mesa facilities, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in Tempe, Milwaukee Brewers in Phoenix, and San Francisco Giants in Scottsdale.
The popularity of spring training has never been greater. In 2015, there were nearly 3.5 million tickets sold to attendees at 458 official spring training games. And that’s not even counting additional games in March that some big-league clubs play against their minor league affiliates and college teams, or the exhibitions that many now play in their home stadiums just prior to Opening Day. Not surprisingly, the Yankees and Red Sox drew the most spring training fans in Florida, each averaging about 10,000 per game, followed closely behind by the Phillies, Tigers, and Orioles. In Arizona, the Cubs led the way with nearly 15,000 fans in the stands on average, ahead of the Diamondbacks, Giants, and Dodgers.
Attendance at spring training games for nearly all of the MLB’s teams has been up in recent years because more and more folks are discovering one of America’s most family-friendly traditions. In 2016, you and yours can be a part of it.
Schedules and Tickets
MLB players begin reporting to their respective team spring training sites in mid-February. The first couple of weeks are reserved for practice sessions, which are generally open to the public and free of charge. For serious fans, these workouts are an opportunity to see their favorite players up close and personal, get some autographs and even snag a selfie or two. Actual spring training games get underway around March 1. Go to MLB.com or your favorite team’s official website for complete schedules. SpringTrainingOnline.com is another great site that has game schedules and other helpful information.
At most early spring training games, fans can expect to see a mixed lineup of team veterans and younger players trying to make it onto their big-league rosters. Starting pitchers usually go no more than three innings. As the spring season progresses, most clubs play split-squad games on the same day (half the team at the home park and half on the road) in order to give position players more at-bats and pitchers more innings of work. Towards the end of March, final roster cuts are made and the line-ups begin to resemble those that fans can expect to see on Opening Day when the games that count commence.
Each team controls its own spring training tickets and releases them for sale on different dates. Single-game tickets can be purchased in advance over the phone, online or at the club’s regular-season stadium box office, as well as at team memorabilia stores. Prices range from as little as $5 for general admission outfield seats to as much as $45 for prime locations behind home plate, although you can usually get good seats for between $10 and $20. Season passes are also available, but most of those are quickly snatched up by local residents and ticket brokers, who resell them on sites like eBay and StubHub. Some of the most popular teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, and Cubs play to sell-out crowds, especially in late March, but most clubs have game-day tickets available at their spring training ballpark box office. If you’re locked-in to certain travel dates or want to see your favorite team in action against a long-time rival, it’s best to secure your tickets in advance.
In general, spring training ballparks offer a fan-friendly intimacy that stadium-size sites can lack. You can hear the managers and coaches shouting instructions and often see players ribbing one another in the more relaxed pre-season atmosphere. In recent years, many teams have built new spring training ballparks or upgraded older ones in response to the increasing number of fans who attend every year. Many have added new seats and conveniences, as well as play areas for the kids. Food and drink concessions range from good to excellent and all spring training ballparks have team shops where you can get logo jerseys, tee-shirts, and caps in all sizes, plus collectibles and other souvenirs.
Two notes of caution about spring training games: Wear a hat and some sunscreen, especially if your seats are not in a shaded area, or that lily-white winter skin of yours will be beet-red by the fifth inning. And while one of the great things about spring training ballparks is their smaller size, affording the opportunity to see the players and game action at close proximity, it also means that you need to be heads-up for foul balls and flying bats of the wooden variety. In other words, PAY ATTENTION! There’s plenty of time between innings to check your smart-phone messages.
Rooms and Routes
Spring training game tickets are also available as a part of complete accommodations packages with hotels and resorts in Florida or Arizona that are near the team training sites. Prices tend to decrease for packages and rooms-only deals as you get further away from the home fields, but reservations are still recommended. If you’re planning to be around for more than a few days, or traveling with a group of family members or friends, consider reserving one of the many multi-bedroom condos or vacation homes that are available during spring training. In Florida, those include beach houses that are just a short drive from the ballpark.
Getting to spring training in Arizona or Florida offers several travel options to consider. Flying is the quickest way to get there and some airlines add direct flights during March from major northern-tier cities to the big tourist-hub airports in Orlando and Tampa, as well as Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix. It’s wise to reserve a rental car in advance because they can get scarce during spring training.
The other popular choice is to make your spring training adventure into a road trip. The Interstate drive time from most northeastern locations to central Florida is anywhere from 12 to 15 hours and even longer for fans of midwestern teams heading for Arizona. Either way, split your coming and goings into a two-day trip if possible and consider scenic alternative byways like U.S. Highway 17 in the east and Route 66 out west.
And if you want to go really old-school, take the train: Amtrak’s Silver Meteor is a 21.5-hour ride from New York City to Orlando and the Southwestern Chief is a 33-hour excursion from Chicago to Flagstaff, Arizona, where you can pick up a rental car for the trip down to Phoenix.
So if you’re thinking about taking a “Grand Vacation” with your children’s children during their spring break from school or just want to get away with your spouse and feel like a kid again, Spring Training 2016 is a great opportunity to make some new memories. Whether it becomes your new family tradition or remains a once-in-a-lifetime experience, you’ll be wearing a smile as you touch all the bases and head for home.
Master Planned Communities in the Vicinity
For ideal-Living readers, there’s another option to think about: An increasing number of residential and retirement communities in Florida and Arizona now offer spring training tickets with special March “discovery” packages. The deals are great and will afford you an “insider’s look” into a place that you may one day call home.
The Space Coast Stadium, located in Viera, FL, is the spring training home of the Washington Nationals Baseball Team and the regular season home of the Brevard County Manatees. The Viera Company contributed the land for the stadium that can seat as many as 8,100 fans. Come enjoy spring training games in January and February. Both National League and American League teams come to Viera for games through March.
A 20,000-acre master-planned community in east-central Florida, Viera offers homes, townhomes and condominiums in dozens of distinctive neighborhoods, including several for 55+ active adult and military retirees. On-site amenities include six large community parks, a superb fitness center and a 100-bed hospital.
www.Viera.com • 800.23.VIERA
WCI Communities’ Hampton Park is a private southwest Florida neighborhood located within the 3,000-acre Gateway community and just down the road from one of the state’s premier MLB spring training facilities.
JetBlue Park at Fenway South is the off-season home of the Boston Red Sox. The $78 million stadium and baseball complex features its own version of the fabled Green Monster wall and welcomes thousands of winter-weary fans for tune-up games against the NY Yankees and other Grapefruit League rivals.
Hampton Park residents also enjoy playing on the Gateway Golf & Country Club’s Tom Fazio Signature golf course and six lighted tennis courts, plus walking, jogging and biking on 15 miles of exercise trails. Hampton Park’s Sports & Social Club facilities include a fitness center, resort-style swimming pool and playground for the kids and grandkids. www.HamptonParkWCI.com • 800.WCI.4005