Thursday, March 26, 2015

Spring Training Trip Highlights

My trip last week to Florida was one of the best vacations I've taken in a long time. Outside of getting around Tampa (ugh) and breaking my camera in Viera there were no glitches. I saw eight games involving nine different teams over six days in six stadiums. Night games in Tampa and Bradenton were not part of the original plans but I managed to fit them in so that Tuesday and Wednesday became back-to-back doubleheader days.

Each place visited had something special about it. From our on-the-field access in Space Coast Stadium in Viera to the beershake in Ft. Myers I was able to come away with a nice memory of every ballpark visit.

Here are some random pictures illustrating various things I found interesting and a few thoughts on the best things I experienced.

Space Coast Stadium, Viera. 

Getting to hang out on the field at the two Nationals home games in Viera was great. We stayed out of the way and yet were close enough to get a real feel for what goes on at a Spring game.

We saw two games here. The only disappointment were that Jose Altuve played the Astros split squad game at their own place that day and didn't make the trip. I also dropped and damaged my Nikon digital camera here. I bought a replacement the next morning at the WalMart down the street from our hotel. Ever shop for a digital camera at 6 a.m. on a Sunday at a Walmart? Don't. 

If a stadium had the lineups posted by hand on a board they got bonus points from me. Only Ft Myers and Tampa didn't have this. It's a neat little feature that the fans loved taking pictures of. Here are the lineups from our Nats games in Viera:

McKechnie Field, Bradenton

The street scene around McKechnie was fun. It reminded me of walking around outside Wrigley Field. The deck that went all the way across the outfield is a nice touch and elevated press box is unique. The stadium is set in an older neighborhood and parking is problamatic. Every Tom, Dick and Harry is out on the street holding a sign advertising the cost for parking in their driveway or on their lawn.

One thing I noticed right away is that there were no vendors roaming the stands selling beer, etc. I've never experienced a vendor-free ballpark.

I saw two games here, a day game versus the Orioles....

...and a night game against the Tigers. In about the sixth inning of the Tigers game, when the regulars had been replaced with the scrubs, I ventured out to one of the patio bars behind the first base side stands. I met a couple of really nice Pirates fans who chided me for wearing my Orioles gear and bought me a beer. We talked baseball and spring training for the rest of the night.

Marchant Stadium, Lakeland

Marchant Stadium is a lot like McKechnie. Parking was easier but the 'feel' was the same. I loved this place.

It also provided the most random gift shop item ever... a Patriots visor sitting among racks and racks of Tigers gear. WTF?

This is where we had the best seats of anyplace on the trip. Nat's GM Mike Rizzo wasn't attending the game so he gave us his seats. A couple of times I was tempted to ask the coaches and 'in-the-hole' hitter if they would move to the side so I could see the pitcher without leaning.

The way the dugout is set back made our seats closer to home plate than the manager's. That's the bat boy wearing the green coat in the photo below. It was St. Patrick's Day. We sat in front of Bob Boone who works for the Nats. I felt a little weird asking him to sign a baseball but he was very nice about it.

Marchant is where I found the widest variety of food offerings. I jumped off my diet to partake in a grilled cheese sandwich which was awesome. The same little booth also sold homemade tomato soup and the guy there said he sold out his soup every game no matter how hot the weather.

Ed Smith Stadium, Sarasota

The Orioles' home in Sarasota was the spiffiest of the older parks. The Orioles have done a nice job of refurbishing the place. I heard from several fans that the place had been 'a dump' in the past.

I liked how they hung Orioles title banners in the open 'lobby' area just inside the main gates.

I decided to watch the game from behind the lower deck seating area rather than sit in the sun. They have a viewing area that runs around the stadium with a shelf for food and drinks. The Birds teed off on the Bucs with some dingers in the middle innings including one from Adam Jones.

The crab cake at Ed Smith Stadium was the most authentic concession item I found. Oriole fans at McKechnie told me that when I got to Sarasota I needed to try one. They are flown down from Baltimore (supposedly) and it was pretty tasty. I didn't try the soft shell crab sandwich but it looked pretty good, too.

This bird statue near one of the outdoor beer gardens in right field was pretty creepy.

Steinbrenner Field, Tampa

Not on the original itinerary was visit to Steinbrenner Field in Tampa. I was dropping my buddy at the airport and was staying overnight in Tampa so I figured "why not?".This place had the most 'big league stadium' feel to it. The scoreboard was major league, easily the most elaborate of those I saw. Alex Rodriquez played, and to call his reception 'mixed' would be overly generous.

I sat next to a family from the Toronto area and we talked a lot of hockey. Behind us were some young guys from Canada who did their best 'Canadian accent stereotype' the whole game. You guys were not as funny as you thought you were, eh?

One of the better meals I had on the trip was the corned beef on rye at Steinbrenner Field. Very New York-ish and pretty darn good. As I entered the stadium a gate security guy was making some woman dump out her bottled water because it wasn't Aquafina, the stadium's official water sponsor. She was rather pissed about it, too.

The parking situation wasn't very good. They use the lots for the Buccaneers' place across the street. And they make it hell to get into them. Tampa has a maddening way of keeping you waiting for the lights to change. I'd hate to see how parking is for NFL games. Leaving I was funneled away from my destination and it took me a couple of miles to find a legal u-turn.

Hammond Stadium, Fort Myers

The homemade potato chips in Ft. Myers' Hammond Stadium may be the best single food item I found. They were freshly made and cost a buck and a half with my hot dog. A nice touch.

The ballpark is newly refurbished and was clean and picturesque. It also had the best parking and the friendliest (and oldest) staff. I think that when the retired people retire from working other spring training ballparks they come to Ft. Myers!

It also provided one of the best experiences I had, listening to Orioles coach Bobby Dickerson coaching up a group of young infielders. That's him on the right in the photo below. It was fascinating to watch and listen from a few feet away as he showed the players how he transitioned the ball from glove to throwing hand, how to choose the right sized glove and other tips. Jonathan Schoop served as interpreter as needed.

Most unusual concession item in any stadium was my beer shake at Hammond. I heard the announcer mention it and I walked around the stadium and finally found the two old characters working a beer stand who made them. If you are old enough to remember the radio duo of Bob and Ray than you have some idea of the routine these two old guys went through.

A beer shake sounds terrible but was actually pretty tasty.

The only down side to the trek down to Ft. Myers (it was the longest ride I had to make all week) was that the Orioles only brought a handful of major leaguers down for the game. I'm not going to count the grumpy old lady in Red Sox gear who I sat next to for the game. I tried to make conversation with her and she looked at me like I had two heads. Everyone else I met on the trip was friendly. People going to spring training games love to talk about baseball and hometowns.

All in all, I loved every minute of the trip. Even getting mistaken for Walgreens' employees at the Hertz counter in Orlando International before setting out for Vierra. That's what wearing matching 'Curly W' polos will get you.

I held my souvenir hunting to a minimum until I got to the Orioles' store in Sarasota. One thing I did get at each park was a pin to commemorate Spring Training 2015. Great additions to my pin collection.


  1. This looks like an amazing trip! I'm very envious.

  2. What an awesome trip! I think you've inspired me to try to make it down one of these years!

  3. Awesome, would love to make such a trip one day !

  4. I went to spring training three years in a row in the mid 2000's. Lakeland was probably one of my favorites too. I've heard great things about the renovations the Pirates did to their stadium, but didn't get to witness it firsthand.

  5. I kinda-sorta did Spring Training in 1988, but it was just St. Lucie and I was by myself... That was a fun experience, but you got a whole lot more out of your trip than I did mine... I'll have to make another trip one year.

    Thanks for sharing all this with your jealous readers!

  6. I enjoyed seeing these. We did Cactus League a few years ago and had a blast.