BY BERNIE PLESKOFF
Last week I discussed Spring Training in Arizona. I pointed out some of the many differences between Spring Training in Arizona and Florida. Today I’ll share my thoughts on the Grapefruit League in Florida-all of it based upon my annual trip to the Sunshine State for Spring Training. I usually spend the first half of spring in Arizona and go to Florida to finish.
I must confess that since I live in Arizona, I am more familiar with the restaurants and watering holes in and around the Phoenix area. But I am very familiar with the training venues in Florida. I have visited Spring Training in Florida for more than 50 years. I do have several restaurants I like and I’ll share them with you below.
I began last week’s article with a warning about the rental car rates at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix. Car rental rates are high in Florida as well, so shop around. In addition, there are several airports servicing Florida Spring Training destinations. That gives the fan a broader range of air carriers and airports from which to choose. I can’t say enough about the positive experience I have had flying into Sarasota/Bradenton Airport. It is smaller, more manageable and close to many training sites.
My greatest concerns about Florida in February and March revolve around the crowded, congested and sluggish Interstate 4 corridor. I4 is always loaded with traffic. It is often bumper to bumper going both ways from Orlando to Tampa. That’s the area of Disney World, theme parks and the Tigers (Lakeland) and Braves (Lake Buena Vista) training camps. Be aware that a Strawberry Festival in Plant City along I4 will likely cause you delays in travel. Plan for it. Count on it. Other interstates just don’t seem quite as hectic and busy. It is likely you will use I4, I75 and/or I95 in your Florida travels. It is also likely your rental car will include a daily price to use their turnpike and toll road system. Even though you claim you will not use the toll roads, I have found the added cost non-negotiable. You may have better luck.
In Phoenix, Scottsdale and Mesa in Arizona, there are some places with speed cameras at traffic intersections. They appear in Florida as well. Be aware of traffic cameras. There is no way you can fight City Hall. And by all means, don’t exceed the speed limit anywhere you are in Florida.
I do have a lodging tip that may help you in the Orlando area. Marriott has a series of properties in Marriott Village near the Disney properties. I have found these properties to be less expensive, clean and very easy to navigate going to and from Lakeland or to the Braves camp.
Restaurants in and around the Orlando Disney area are probably more plentiful than anywhere in the world. Every chain and some independent dining facilities are abundant as far as the eye can see on both sides of every road. You won’t starve. And the food is reasonably priced, as the competition is fierce.
When you see the words “flea market” it may just be another name for a souvenir store. However, there are a couple true indoor “flea markets” along the surface roads from Orlando to Kissimmee that have every chatchka and trinket known to man.
Florida Spring Training has a major difference than Arizona regarding the actual baseball being played. In Florida, the humidity offers pitchers an opportunity to spin more breaking balls, work up a sweat quicker and hasten their spring progress to get in shape. In Arizona, humidity is minimal, the pitches straighten out and breaking ball pitchers have a rougher time.
It is very difficult to evaluate pitching in Arizona. Basically, spring pitching in the desert is used to get in shape.
The remainder of this piece will discuss specific Florida spring venues. Please keep in mind I have not yet visited or seen the new Washington Nationals/Houston Astros West Palm Beach facilities that opened last spring. I will, however, greatly miss the departed Astros complex at Kissimmee, which I visited for years as an Astros scout. I used to love to have dinner at the now-closed Kissimmee Steak House-it was really, really good.
LAKELAND-JOKER MARCHANT STADIUM-DETROIT TIGERS (way at the top of the citrus tree canopy)
This coming season will be the 82nd for the Tigers in Tigertown and year number 53 in the current stadium. The complex has undergone a renovation, which I look forward to seeing. It is fantastic to see Hall of Famer Al Kaline at almost every game I have ever attended at Joker Marchant. There are some unique features about the facility. There is always someone handing out the local Lakeland newspaper before the game. I like that. The food is excellent downstairs at the concession stands. But other than at the Tampa Bay press area, the food served to the media by the Tigers complex is the best in Florida. Served on the exterior of the park down in the right field area, seeing the friendly faces of the women that have served up healthy, wholesome and wonderful food year after year is a treat for me. The park is quaint with good seating for fans. The facility holds 9,568 (before renovation) and everyone is “in the game.” The crowd loves their Tigers. Most are from Michigan. The Tigers usually wear their home whites rather than spring uniforms during their home games. I really love going to Joker Marchant and I think you will, too.
BRADENTON-LECOM PARK-PITTSBURGH PIRATES (a blend of all the great citrus fruits-very tasty)
McKechnie Field is the name most people know for this iconic Spring Training facility. However, naming rights were awarded to Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine. Quaint. Charming. Nostalgic. An anachronism. Think 1960’s and Roberto Clemente or Willie Stargell. Entering the 50th year the Pirates have played in Bradenton, this facility is like waking up from a fifty-year nap. Yes, there is a new boardwalk area. Yes, the facilities (other than the press box as I write this) have been updated. I wasn’t there last year, so things may be even more modern, but this is baseball past as it is meeting baseball present. Slipped into a light industrial-business-residential neighborhood, the stadium looks totally out of place when one considers the new, shiny, stand-alone complexes being built today. But Pirate City has stood the test of time. Parking is limited. Food stations are not as plentiful. They do ring the lower area and get plentiful when one enters the outfield boardwalk area. The entire experience is almost whimsical and one I admire and enjoy. This is baseball for true baseball fans that come for the games and not just to be seen. If you go to Florida, please consider Bradenton and the Pirates. How old is this place? Babe Ruth played there. Several teams have trained at the park. But it’s great. Just great.
SARASOTA-ED SMITH STADIUM-BALTIMORE ORIOLES (among the sweetest among all the fruits)
The Orioles came to Ed Smith following the departure of the Cincinnati Reds to Arizona. It was a return to Ed Smith for Baltimore, as they left Sarasota for Ft. Lauderdale before returning. The stadium has been totally renovated and is beautiful. It isn’t as quaint as Pirate City, but it is charming and has the feel of yesteryear with the reality of today’s modern needs. The capacity is 7,484 and by the time I arrive in mid-March every year, the place is usually sold out. While I don’t think there is any one feature that sets Ed Smith Stadium apart, I think it is a great place to watch a game with a feel somewhere between yesteryear and this year. It is everything Orioles. The bird is everywhere-and I love that. There really is something for everyone. Clean, inviting and very well maintained, this park is in a community that has culture, good restaurants, beachfront facilities and just about everything any fan or those accompanying a fan could ever want. It’s interesting to note that the seats at Ed Smith are renovated seats from Orioles Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore. I think the place is beautiful. Quiet. Serene, and Classy.
CHARLOTTE-CHARLOTTE SPORTS PARK-TAMPA BAY RAYS (great citrus)
I can’t explain why, but I really enjoy going to games at Charlotte Sports Park. Perhaps it is the fantastic, and I do mean fantastic food they offer in the press box. It has been gourmet in the past and I hope that holds true this spring. They were the first place I ever tried King’s Hawaiian hamburger buns. Amazing. Now I can get them in my local grocery store. Getting back to basics, this is an intimate park. There are only 5,028 fixed seats, so the crowds aren’t huge. A boardwalk wraps from foul pole to foul pole and two large berms are inviting for fans. I have found the scoreboard to be one of the most comprehensive and helpful in Florida. The schedule is heavy with Boston, Minnesota and Baltimore visits because of the proximity of those parks. American League fans are in heaven, as they often get to see and scout out their competition. Easy to access off I75, you will like your visit to Charlotte Sports Park.
JUPITER-ROGER DEAN STADIUM-ST. LOUIS CARDINALS/MIAMI MARLINS (a lemon for me)
Baseball Game Today-a sign with those words, or similar (I can’t quite remember the exact wording) greets traffic at the exit off I95 leading to Roger Dean Stadium. The sign doesn’t have to be changed until April, as there is a game at Roger Dean every day with either the Cardinals or the Marlins as host. The Cardinals are beginning their 21st season at the park, and the Marlins enter season No. 16. The park is tucked in what looks like a business complex. It isn’t my favorite place, but the area around Jupiter is nice to visit. Built in 1998, the park holds 6,871 people. Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne damaged the park in 2004. Fans of both teams love the place. Meh!
DUNEDIN-FLORIDA AUTO EXCHANGE STADIUM-TORONTO BLUE JAYS (not enough sugar in this lemonade)
Built in 1990 and looking much older, the flavor and fans of Canada make this park unique. It is old. And it seems very old. It is tired. It seems very tired. It isn’t nearly as updated as those of the Pirates, Orioles and Tigers. In fact, it screams out for help. The Blue Jays players and fans deserve better than the current facilities. If all accounts are true, help in the form of total renovation is in the works. Tucked in a residential neighborhood, the park looks out of place. Lack of parking is a problem. The team is entering their 42nd season at the present location. Seating capacity is 5,509 and I never fail to see Canadian flags and bumper stickers and hear people speaking both French and English as I walk through the park. I really enjoy that and it’s probably the best part of my trip to Dunedin. Ultimately, the loyal fans will be rewarded with an updated park at the current site. An expansion and renovation of the stadium to 8,500 seats is scheduled to begin in April this year, following the end of Spring Training. But while it currently doesn’t look very appealing, this facility is a nice place to watch a game.
CLEARWATER-SPECTRUM FIELD-PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES (average citrus, but tasty)
The Phillies are entering their 15th season in this facility. I remember where they were before in Clearwater, at Jack Russell Field. This is more updated. Seating 8,272, it is one of the bigger parks in Florida and it really is a nice place to watch a game. Usually, at Phillies spring games fans can buy a used bat or a game-used baseball from youngsters selling them outside the park. That was truer in the old park, but I still see it upon occasion at Spectrum (formerly Bright House Networks Field). As one might imagine, fans in the stands are very passionate about their team. They’ve packed the place at every game I’ve visited in mid-March. Easy to find and not as bad a drive as some other places, getting to this Clearwater park makes for a very nice afternoon of spring baseball. Fans at the park have plenty of room without feeling cramped. Many spring parks have been built around the plans used at this Clearwater facility. Moving from a neighborhood park like Jack Russell Field to Spectrum is a different “vibe.” The “Tiki Bar” in left field has always been a favorite watering hole for fans.
LAKE BUENA VISTA-CHAMPION STADIUM-ATLANTA BRAVES
(losing its citrus flavor quickly)
I should begin by stating that the Braves are planning to leave their Disney World location for North Port near Sarasota beginning in spring, 2019. With their Champion Stadium lease expiring in 2018, the Braves plan is to move to south Sarasota County. The Braves have held Spring Training at the Disney ESPN Wide World of Sports complex since 1997. The stadium is a mini version of a big league stadium. When first opened, it was a bit different going to games in what appeared to be a major league stadium waiting to grow up. Some of the bloom is off the rose as the facility had begun to look tired and worn a couple years ago. Seating 9500 fans, the stadium has one of the larger capacities in Florida. Originally known as Cracker Jack Stadium when Frito Lay owned the naming rights, it seems Champion Stadium has served its purpose over time and it became apparent that the relationship between Disney and the Braves wasn’t going to forge a new deal. Perhaps another team will take over at Champion. Or perhaps the place will just continue to host amateur events in the Disney neighborhood.
TAMPA-GEORGE M. STEINBRENNER FIELD-NEW YORK YANKEES (big glasses of citrus with some sweet, some sour)
With design and dimensions replicating Yankee Stadium, the spring home of the Yankees was built and opened as Legends Field in 1996. Holding 11,026 fans, George M. Steinbrenner Field is one of the biggest and most similar to a major league baseball stadium in either Arizona or Florida. It feels like the fan is attending a major league stadium from the parking experience to the game experience to every nuance associated with the facility. For me, that is both positive and negative. The intimacy of a smaller park is gone. The environment of meaningful baseball is paramount. It is not unusual to see former Yankees stars working out with players behind a wall visible to fans near the outdoor concourse. The Yankees have a lease at the property that extends until 2046 and improvements and upgrades take place often. Steinbrenner Field was the first spring facility to have luxury suites. Attending a game at the Tampa spring home of the Yankees is probably as close to seeing a game in the Bronx as possible. The facility even includes plaques of players who have had their numbers retired. Prepare for a major league experience in a Spring Training facility. But it doesn’t seem like Spring Training.
FORT MYERS-JETBLUE PARK AT FENWAY SOUTH-BOSTON RED SOX (hand squeezed orange juice-among the best)
Opened in 2012, JetBlue Park is really a mini Fenway. The Red Sox had trained at City of Palms Park in Fort Myers for years, but the complex had become dated and lacked modern amenities. Under a 30-year lease, the Red Sox have one of the most up to date and fan-friendly Florida facilities for Spring Training. Using the exact field dimensions as Fenway, a replica Green Monster in left field is the highlight of the stadium. A manual scoreboard, similar to the one at Fenway is included in the Monster. The center field triangle, the lone red seat marking the longest home run and Pesky’s Pole also appear at JetBlue Park. In essence, Red Sox fans feel right at home in their spring Fort Myers facility. The similarity to Fenway is really enticing and attending games at JetBlue is a mini-Fenway experience at its best.
FORT MYERS-HAMMOND STADIUM-MINNESOTA TWINS
(I like the flavor of the citrus)
Hammond Stadium is part of the Century Link Sports complex in south Fort Myers. Sharing the city with the Red Sox for Spring Training, the Twins have carved out a nice location for their own fans with unique features and independence from their city neighbors. The Twins spring stadium was increased to 9300 seats from 7500 in 2015. Built in 1991, and renovated twice, the park includes a large exterior concourse and lawn seating in right and left fields. Easy to navigate and very comfortable due to shaded areas that are welcome on sunny spring days I have always enjoyed watching games at Hammond Stadium. Twins fans need not take a back seat to “little Fenway” as they have a nice spring park of their own.
PORT ST. LUCIE-FIRST DATA FIELD-NEW YORK METS
(Nothing special in this glass of citrus-a little flat and bland)
Built in 1988, and holding 7160, First Data Field is a solid, long-term home for the New York Mets. Generally, people who see games in the Jupiter/West Palm areas also visit Port St. Lucie to see the stadium and take in a Mets game. A nice place to watch a game, for me there isn’t anything special or intriguing about the facility. They do have a “tiki bar” as do several other Florida spring parks. Once called Tradition Field, this Spring Training facility is rather non-descript but Mets fans enjoy Port St. Lucie and the surrounding environment. Former football player Tim Tebow brought some added buzz to First Data Field last Spring Training when he spent time there as a member of the Mets organization.
WEST PALM BEACH-BALLPARK OF THE PALM BEACHES-HOUSTON ASTROS AND WASHINGTON NATIONALS
(Citrus waiting for me to taste)
I have not visited this stadium and it is not in my plans for the coming spring. Built from 2015 thru 2017, the facility opened last spring. It seats 6500 fans with capacity for an additional 1000 in the outfield berm. As of November last year, controversy surrounded the complex. Palm Beach County approved $135MM for the project. The teams were to pay the remainder of the $152MM total cost. As of November, however, millions of dollars remained unpaid to several sub-contractors. It is alleged the Astros and Nationals owe the money. There are disputes about work that was not done, work that was not done properly and work that was done that was not authorized via change order. General contractor Hunt Construction remains in the middle of the dispute. Stay tuned. Real life and spring baseball are intersecting in Palm Beach. Perhaps these money issues have now been resolved, as I have not seen an update.
It goes without saying that theme parks are readily available to entertain the entire family in the Orlando and the Central Florida area. There are too many for me to illustrate here. However, there are a few restaurants and tourist locations I do wish to share below.
COLUMBIA RESTAURANTS-VARIOUS CITIES
While I don’t know that much about restaurants in and around Florida, I do know that the Columbia Restaurant in Sarasota is among my favorites. Founded by Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez, Sr., the Columbia Restaurant(s) offer terrific Spanish food. I have eaten at the Ybor City (Tampa area) Sarasota (St. Armands Circle) and Celebration (near Disney) locations. Each is wonderful. There is also a Columbia Restaurants in Clearwater at Sand Key. It is at the Columbia where I first tasted Paella. These are wonderful restaurants. Don’t be afraid to ask for help with the expansive menu.
BERN’S STEAK HOUSE-1208 S. Howard Avenue-Tampa, Florida
On the border of Ybor City, Bern’s is an iconic, traditional, conventional old time big hunk of tasty meat steak restaurant. I warn you that it gets very crowded, so make reservations. Steak places are expensive, and this is no different. For those familiar with old-time steak houses in Phoenix, this is similar to Durants, the Stockyard Inn or what used to be the (now closed) The Pink Pony. Meat and martinis rule.
THE BUBBLE ROOM- 15001 Captiva Drive-Captiva Island Florida
There are few places like the Bubble Room. Every square inch is filled with some sort of toy, antique, train, bauble, moving display or knickknack. This is a restaurant to experience if you drive to Sanibel Island or Captiva Island or both. Located between the two islands, the Bubble Room is loaded with fun. Good food, too. If you have kids, take them to the Bubble Room. It’s not too big and gets crowded, so make reservations.
JOE’S STONE CRAB-11 Washington Avenue-Miami Beach, Florida
Perhaps you are taking a trip to South Beach or Miami while you visit Spring Training. If you do go all the way south, check out the original Joe’s Stone Crab. This place goes back to 1913 and still gets rave reviews. I’m not much of a seafood, shellfish or crab guy myself, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t share this place with my readers. I have yet to hear anyone complain about their experience at Joe’s Stone Crab.
SANIBEL AND CAPTIVA ISLANDS
Just like the Grand Canyon is a day or weekend trip from Phoenix during Spring Training, Sanibel and Captiva Islands are well worth the visit in south Florida. With a beach that looks and feels different than the pure white sand to be found elsewhere in the state, Sanibel and Captiva beaches are natural with seashells, and sea plants left by nature. These are great family islands with restaurants galore. My wife and I spent two weeks at Sanibel every year until recently. When we left the area, there was still only one chain restaurant-a Dairy Queen. These are unique and precious islands to visit for a day, a week or a month. Be aware there is a toll bridge from the Fort Myers causeway to Sanibel Island, with payment to be made upon entry. There are public beaches available for a day visit. This trip is well worth your time.
THE BRIDGE FROM TAMPA TO ST. PETERSBURG and CLEARWATER
If you fly to Tampa and go to Spring Training anywhere near the Clearwater or St. Petersburg area you will drive along the bridge that connects the communities. It is a beautiful ride. Be patient, go slowly and enjoy the scenery. There are lots of bridges over water in Florida, but this is special.
A fascinating place and a biological wonder, The Everglades is a natural region of tropical wetlands in the southern portion of Florida. The area, known as the “river of glass” is really unique and requires knowledge and care to navigate. That’s why I recommend seeing the Everglades with a tour or a tour guide that knows the area. Alligators are abundant in the environment. Worth the time exploring, the Everglades can be very damp, very humid and very challenging regardless of the time of year. If you go-be careful and go with a pro.
CONCLUDING MY THOUGHTS ON ARIZONA AND FLORIDA
I can reach several conclusions regarding Spring Training in Arizona and Florida, but I still can’t conclude which experience I favor. They are both wonderful. They both have great attributes and a few not so great issues with which to contend. But I want to go to Spring Training every year of my life. I hope you join me in either or both states.
I haven’t mentioned playing golf. I live on a golf course in Arizona, but I don’t play the game. For those who do play, both Arizona and Florida are loaded with excellent courses, both public and private. Some courses have evening, less expensive rates.
I don’t drink much. That’s why you haven’t read much about bars in my two pieces about Spring Training. But one look at me and you know I like to eat. Calories are available in quantity in both states. For me-Spring Training is about beautiful weather, baseball and eating.
There are motels and hotels for every budget in both states, but prices are the highest in February and March in and around Spring Training locations. If you plan to go in 2019, make your reservations sooner than later. It is already a bit late to get a good rate for this year.
If you are an autograph collector, some parks are more difficult than others. However, in most places, players hang out around the left field and right field corners just before they leave the field after they stretch. They also exit during the game in those same areas in some parks. Those are good times to seek autographs.
Generally, Florida is humid. Arizona is drier with less humidity. Both have lots and lots of sun. Be especially careful about protecting your skin from sunburn. Even on cloudy days. The sun can be brutal. Sunscreen, a hat that covers the back of your neck and lots of good, cold water in your system at all times are essential to keep yourself healthy.
If you see me at the stadium, stop me and say hello. And if you have any questions about Spring Training, feel free to ask me on Twitter @BerniePleskoff
Next: Lets talk some more about this offseason