Forget that heart-warming parade through the Canyon of Heroes. There’s another good reason to thank the baseball gods Spring Training is finally here: It’s been a damn cold winter.
For New York baseball fans, the Grapefruit League offers an excuse to make a March pilgrimage to Florida, the land of sun, sand and amusement parks. The Yankees call Tampa home while the Mets make spring camp on the east coast in Port St. Lucie, part of MLB’s 15-team contingent in the state. The rest play in Arizona.
Whether you drive down or jet in, there’s nothing like a week chasing your favorite baseball team groupie-style through the Sunshine State. And the economic downturn—Florida has been particularly hard-hit—means everything is on sale and seats are aplenty.
Catching big league stars and rookies alike in the relaxed atmosphere that is Spring Training has been a favorite pastime of mine going back to my days as a teenager in Tampa Bay. I showed up an hour before game time in Kissimmee last March and got a first-row view behind home plate to the Marlins-Astros. Former President George H.W. Bush sat two sections over. More importantly, it was my first look at unknown Chris Coghlan. He homered, and by season’s end was the surprise NL Rookie of the Year. Score!
Of course, some tickets are tougher gets. The two-time NL champion Philadelphia Phillies have a state of the art complex in Clearwater and a rabid fan base. And I paid a premium (but hardly New York prices) for a Phillies-Blue Jays game in Dunedin a day later. Basking in the sun while chomping on peanuts and watching Chase Utley homer was worth every penny.
Newly renamed Steinbrenner Field, off busy Dale Mabry Highway in the heart of Tampa, used to be an impossible ticket. Not in recent seasons, although the Yankees bringing home world championship No. 27 in November, their first since 2000, may change the equation.
Showing up at the box office shouldn’t be a problem (that means you, Mets fans), especially on the road. But a little planning goes a long way. And if you happen to start your journey in South Florida, don’t forget to visit the loved ones in Century Village. Here is Long Island Pulse Magazine’s guide to Spring Training:
New York Yankees
Home: Tampa, Fla.
Stadium: George M. Steinbrenner Field
The Skinny: The defending champs will be a top draw, so prepare to battle crowds—and the media—if you stop by to watch morning workouts. At least this camp should be controversy free. Getting autographs is an art. BP and main fields after workouts are best bets. The minor league complex across the street is good too for up-and-comers. Just bring a Sharpie and patience. As for games, it’s rare to see a full lineup. But one tip is to look for ace pitchers C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. When they pitch, the regulars should start. The Yankees face NL champ Philadelphia five times this spring. Sorry haters, the Mets and Red Sox aren’t on the schedule. But get a first look at new additions Nick Johnson, Javier Vazquez and Curtis Granderson. Also, a great alternative is an Orlando vacation. The Yanks play the Braves and Astros in Kissimmee and the Tigers in Lakeland. You might book a cheaper flight there, too.
Five Key Games: Rays at Yankees, March 5, 1:15pm; Yankees at Twins (Ft. Myers), March 7, 1:05pm; Yankees at Phillies (Clearwater), March 22, 1:05pm; Phillies at Yankees, March 26, 7:30pm; Orioles at Yankees, April 2, 1:15pm.
Top Attractions: Adventure Island, Tampa (water park); Busch Gardens, Tampa (theme park); Lowry Park Zoo, Tampa (zoo); Salvador Dali Museum, St. Petersburg (modern art); World Woods Golf Club, Brooksville (world-class golf); Pass-A-Grille Beach, St. Pete Beach (nicest beach).
Worth Noting: Florida Strawberry Festival, Plant City (March 4-12); Spring Breakers flood Clearwater Beach; Hooters off Gulf-to-Bay Blvd. in Clearwater is the original; Ybor City is famous for hand-rolled cigars (try La Herencia De Cuba); March offers great snook, redfish and speckled trout fishing in the Bay area.
Swank Accommodations: Renaissance Tampa International Plaza, Tampa; Renaissance Vinoy Resort & Golf Club, St. Petersburg; Don CeSar Loews, St. Pete Beach.
New York Mets
Home: Port St. Lucie, Fla.
Stadium: Tradition Field
The Skinny: After a pair of disastrous seasons, the hopeful tone of Spring Training should prove soothing. Also, there will be plenty to see, from the arrival of Jason Bay to the recovery of stars Jose Reyes and Johan Santana (Carlos Beltran will most likely still be inactive). According to one beat writer, autographs are easy to get. Arrive early, roam the open grounds and be on the lookout because David Wright could be lurking around the next corner. Game day traffic is horrific. As with the Yanks, scan the probable starters for Johan Santana. The Mets will field star power whenever their ace pitches. Just remember, there’s not much exciting about Port St. Lucie other than the games themselves. But it will be Spring Break in Daytona. So hit the road with the Mets instead. The Cardinals and Marlins share a facility to the south off I-95 in Jupiter while the Nationals play just north in Melbourne. The family-friendly Orlando area features the Braves, Astros and Tigers. Fly Southwest from Islip to West Palm Beach for convenience and a good deal. Or into Fort Lauderdale if you plan on hitting South Beach. And the Miami waves are surprisingly warm compared to say, Daytona.
Five Key Games: Mets at Braves (Kissimmee), March 3, 1:05pm; Red Sox at Mets, March 11, 1:10pm; Cardinals at Mets, March 15, 1:10pm; Twins at Mets, March 19, 1:10pm; Mets at Marlins (Jupiter), March 26, 1:05pm.
Top Attractions: PGA Golf Club, Port St. Lucie (golf); Navy Seal Museum, Fort Pierce; Manatee Observation and Education Center, Fort Pierce (wildlife tour).
Worth Noting: Drive A1A, one of America’s most scenic roads; The St. Lucie Inlet is diverse and offshore fishing promises sailfish and dolphin; Bike Hutchinson Island trails or kayak the St. Lucie or Indian rivers.
Swank Accommodations: Hilton Garden Inn at PGA Village, Port St. Lucie; Courtyard by Marriott, Jensen Beach; Marriott Hutchinson Island, Stuart.