There’s a 10-year-old photo that rotates through my computer’s screen saver. It’s of a child standing on the green spring grass and red clay dirt of Fort Lauderdale Stadium, the one-time spring training home of the Baltimore Orioles.
On one side of the photo is Twins manager Ron Gardenhire; on the other side is former Twins outfielder Shannon Stewart. In the center is the kid—my kid—his then 6-year-old arms outstretched, holding a program for the ballplayer to sign. A minute before, Gardenhire had plucked him out of the stands, deposited him on the field, and corralled his favorite player to make a connection with the game that might last a lifetime.
Until that point, I would have counted myself a spring training skeptic: Pay to see a baseball game that doesn’t count, surrounded by a bunch of literal fair-weather fans? No thanks.
But that moment changed my thinking, and today I can think of few better ways to while away a March afternoon. Rarely does a year pass that baseball doesn’t call me south, even if just for a day or two. Over the years, that kid and I have done the full spring training circuit in both Arizona and Florida, including visits to ballparks that have been long since abandoned. In the spring game, it seems, there’s always a new ballpark, and always another on its last legs.
That churn is not incidental to the experience, as the ballparks themselves have become one of the major draws of a trip south (besides escaping the cold). Even the newest among them rarely seat more than 10,000, so proximity to players is guaranteed. And because a loss is as good as a win in March, the overall vibe at the stadiums is low intensity. By the late innings of a game, the stars have hit the showers, fans are sunburnt or lounging around the nearest beer tent, and there’s usually an open seat in the front row for the taking.
For those used to the stagecraft of most professional sporting events—the videos, the smoke machines, the fireworks—the informality of spring training can be striking. At the Astros’ yard in Kissimmee, Florida, near Orlando, locals with big grills cook up homey food and sell it in the concourse. At others, the national anthem isn’t sung by a third-tier celebrity or a sponsor’s niece, but by the fans, collectively. Players run wind sprints in the outfield during the game, fans lounge on blankets behind the outfield, and games extend past three hours as minor league pitchers try to make an impression in the late innings by overthinking every pitch. Nobody gets too worked up about it.
As relaxed as the atmosphere may be, when it comes to getting the most out of the experience, it pays to have a game plan. And since spring training for most of us is all about the Twins, that means knowing the lay of the land in southwest Florida, a place that turns into baseball bliss each March.
Morning is the best time to get players’ autographs.
There’s not a bad seat at an open field under March sunshine.
Top photo courtesy of Minnesota Twins; bottom photo by Evan Meyer
Hammond Stadium, Fort Myers
Opened for the Twins in 1991, Hammond Stadium was once a low-key place to catch a game. But with the growth of Fort Myers as a spring training destination (both the Twins and Red Sox call the city home for the month), the experience has become more crowded. The Twins have responded by expanding and improving their facilities, a project currently in a break between phases. This winter the team added a boardwalk encircling the outfield and grassy berm seating in the outfield. Next winter, Hammond’s cramped concourses and pedestrian flow will be addressed.
Unlike some teams, the Twins still allow unfettered access to morning workouts at the fields surrounding Hammond, where fraternizing with the players, though not guaranteed, is still possible. Morning is the time to come for autographs and to ogle minor league phenoms taking infield drills.
Weekday games are the most sedate, and it’s often still possible to score walk-up tickets. For night games and anything involving the Red Sox (Boston fans buy up many of the tickets for their “road” games), it’s wise to buy in advance. Often there are informal minor league games being played at the Twins complex even when the major league team is elsewhere in Florida. Parking is free on non-game days and is relatively easy (though expensive) for games. Road congestion coming from I-75 is a given, so allow extra time if you are arriving from the east.
Photo by Graham Knight/SpringTrainingConnection.com
JetBlue Park, Fort Myers
Located just a couple miles east of Hammond Stadium, JetBlue Park is the newest and fanciest of the spring training ballparks in Florida. Bright white on the outside, it’s built to resemble Boston’s fabled Fenway Park on the inside. Spacious, easy to navigate, and luxurious (by spring training standards, at least), it’s designed to accommodate the throngs that descend from New England each year. Due to the proximity of the teams’ facilities, the Twins play nearly a fourth of their spring games against Boston, meaning JetBlue is essentially a second home for the team—and a great place to catch the boys when they’re not at Hammond. That said, know that the “Sawx” might be the top draw in all of Florida, so their games often sell out in advance (though you can usually get tickets via scalpers or online, if you’re willing to pay).
Charlotte Sports Park, Port Charlotte
The Tampa Bay Rays’ spring training home is just 30 minutes up the road from the Twins. And though the stadium itself is utterly charmless, it offers all the modern conveniences: great sightlines, decent food, and the requisite outfield watering hole. Perhaps because they play 81 home games in nearby St. Petersburg, the Rays have never drawn well in spring, so games here are the easiest ticket in southwest Florida. As a result, there’s not the sense of fan engagement that there is at Hammond or JetBlue, since the best seats are often occupied by fans rooting for the visitors. But because the Rays might be the smartest organization in baseball, a game here often means a chance to catch a glimpse of great young players on the rise.
The Orioles’ Ed Smith Stadium and the Pirates’ McKechnie Field are both located in Sarasota, an ideal vacation spot for families.
Photo by Graham Knight/SpringTrainingConnection.com
Ed Smith Stadium, Sarasota
On a good day, Ed Smith Stadium is about 80 minutes from Fort Myers. This former home of the White Sox and Reds was remodeled for the Orioles a couple years ago and is now one of the intimate and charming places to catch a game in the Grapefruit League. Concessions are good and parking is easy. And since Sarasota is arguably the most appealing destination in all of southwest Florida, I’d recommend making a day of it. Pair a game with a visit to the Ringling Museum complex or the city’s superb botanical gardens, plus a meal in one of its stellar restaurants (see below).
McKechnie Field, Bradenton
Home of the Pittsburgh Pirates, McKechnie is the oldest extant spring ballpark (it was built in 1923, but twice renovated since). And though it’s situated in a nondescript neighborhood of Sarasota’s blue-collar sister city of Bradenton, roughly 90 minutes from Fort Myers, the park has a homey, convivial vibe. Perhaps because the Pirates have been in southwest Florida longer than any other team, there’s a real sense of community here. I’d offer the same advice about a game at McKechnie as at the Orioles’ Ed Smith Stadium—make a day of it by pairing a game with a meal and a day out in neighboring Sarasota.
The beachside Four Points in Punta Gorda is surprisingly affordable; the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point in Estero is a short trip from Hammond Stadium.
Photos courtesy of Four Points by Sheraton, Hyatt Hotels
Yummy prawns from Owen’s Fish Camp; a sky-high Drunken Pig and Bull burger from Square 1 Burgers.
Photos courtesy of Owen’s Fish Camp and Square 1 Burgers
IF YOU GO
Spring training begins in mid-February when players arrive in “camp,” running drills and preparing physically for the season. The 15 major league teams in Florida make up the Grapefruit League (those that make their spring training homes in Arizona are the Cactus League). Over the four-week “season,” each team plays 13 to 15 home games and an equivalent number of road games. Weekend and night games typically sell out, and certain high-demand teams (the Red Sox or Yankees, basically) sell out well in advance. That said, it’s often relatively easy to score tickets online or in person via scalpers at the ballpark.
Where to Stay
I’d avoid the temptation to stay on Fort Myers Beach if you want to watch a lot of baseball. Driving times from there to the ballparks are long, traffic jams for the single bridge are endemic, and the beachfront lodging in Fort Myers is pricey for what you get. Instead, for a resort experience, I’d recommend the lovely Hyatt Regency Coconut Point (with beach access) in the town of Estero, about 15 minutes south of Hammond. A good plan B if you’re on a budget is the nearby Hyatt Place at Coconut Point lifestyle mall. Still, it’s March in Florida, so don’t expect bargains. An alternative for those willing to drive a bit is the charming Four Points by Sheraton in Punta Gorda, between Fort Myers and Sarasota. It’s right by the water, terrifically decorated, staffed by eager locals, and the price is right.
Where to Eat
Fort Myers dining is a less-than-inspiring amalgam of national chain restaurants and overrated tourist-trap seafood houses. That said, Square 1 Burgers is a good upscale burger joint on U.S. 41. While on Fort Myers Beach, stop for breakfast or lunch at Heavenly Biscuit; the biscuits and biscuit sandwiches are incredible. Most of the upscale eateries at Coconut Point mall are reliable (think Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Ted’s Montana Grill, and Blue Water Bistro for seafood). More options can be found 30 minutes south in Naples, including versions from the D’Amico family of restaurants. Perhaps the best restaurant scene in southwest Florida is in Sarasota, where you don’t want to miss Owen’s Fish Camp on artsy Burns Court downtown.
The website springtrainingonline.com is a great resource for going in-depth on spring training, ballparks, schedules, and history. Fort Myers is not well covered by national guidebooks, but Moon Handbooks’ Sarasota and Naples is recently updated and thorough.