Is there any better place to die than in a sun-drenched Florida baseball field on a March day when the big leaguers are taking batting practice and the humidity is low and the temperature is so perfect you can't tell where your skin stops and the air begins? Apparently not, because, as any veteran of spring training trips to Florida can tell you, EMTs are as common at the ballparks as the beer vendors, thanks to the high number of senior citizens at games.
But don't let that discourage you. A spring training trip to Florida is the wholesome family alternative to the Evil Mouse, a haven for baseball freaks and a great vacation for couples--assuming you're trying to break up with your wife or girlfriend.
"But we are going to the beach sometime, right?"
"Um, hadn't planned on it. Hey, look! Cal Ripken!"
Twenty of the major leagues' 30 teams take their six-week spring training in Florida (Grapefruit League); the rest go to Arizona (Cactus League). Florida's season begins March 2, Arizona's the next day. Florida is better. One, it's closer. Two, there is an actual ocean and gulf there, if it comes to that. Three, it's where the Baltimore Orioles train. Four, no state does an Early Bird Buffet like Florida.
Taking three to seven days to see spring training in Florida is, in many ways, a perfect vacation. From a guy's standpoint, its chief benefit is that it requires exactly zero planning. Hop a flight, rent a car (convertible preferred), drive to a game, buy a $6 bleacher ticket and a $2 beer, watch the game, then check into the Motel 6. No reservations, no "packages," no travel agents, no concierges, no hassle. Also, teams play their spring training games during March, which is a perfect time to be in Florida and a lousy time to be in Washington. Finally, it's your best chance to see real major leaguers up close, get autographs, actually chat with them in the intimacy of a 5,000-seat stadium.
So, the following are some tips for your vacation, gleaned from my three trips to spring training. Note that they are cleverly indexed with baseball references.
* Road games: Each team has a spring training headquarters, with a field or two, batting and pitching facilities and so on. This is the "complex." The complexes are fairly evenly clustered on Florida's east coast strip, from Fort Lauderdale north to Vero Beach and along the Gulf of Mexico coast, around Tampa. There are a few in central Florida, near Orlando. It's probably smart to pick the one geographic region with the teams you most want to see, fly to it, and rotate among ballparks in that area, as opposed to driving across central Florida, which has less topographic remarkableness and habitability than, say, Europa, the ice moon of Jupiter.
* Signing on the sweet spot: The best thing about spring training is that here are the game's stars--Ripken, Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens--and they're five feet away. You can touch them. You can talk to them. You can get them to sign stuff, like your breasts, if you're a woman (or a morbidly obese man) and they'll do it. So get autographs. The best times are about an hour before games and in the late innings, when players who've already played come to the outfield fences and sign.
Last spring, I was in Fort Lauderdale watching the Orioles play the Florida Marlins. Toward the end of the game, O's backup catcher Lenny Webster came over to the chain-link fence in right field. A crowd clustered around him, handing items over the fence for him to sign. Without looking up, he held out his hand, grabbed each item, signed it, and handed it back. Fans handed him baseballs, baseball cards, hats, T-shirts. And a prosthetic right leg from the knee down. With the sneaker and tube sock still on. Webster grabbed it. Halted for a moment. He grinned, then signed his name alongside about a dozen others on the limb, which was clearly the guy's autograph leg. Webster handed it back to the man, who strapped it back on.
If you're a good-looking woman and aren't wearing many clothes, you can ask players for items of apparel, such as their batting gloves. One such woman, a Baseball Annie in training, testing the structural limits of a Spandex top, walked around the stadium with three pairs of players' gloves stuffed into her waistband, hanging there like pelts, trophies of her conquests.
* Rookie league: If at all possible, take a cute, 2-year-old boy to the games. Rent one if you must. You'll get lots of baseballs. My friend George's son, Sam, is a ball magnet. If players or coaches on the field get a foul ball during a game, they'll walk over to the fence and look for a kid to give it to. Because baseball is the American sport, handed down from father to son, it's guaranteed that the grinning kid along the fence will get the ball. One day, Sam got four balls and a greeting from Ripken. His father is shameless.
* In the clubhouse: Because there's not, quite frankly, a lot to do in most of these towns, you've got a decent chance to run into some players in the evening at the local hotel bars. It depends on how pally you want to get with these guys, but it's not unusual to end up drinking with with a 22-year-old call-up who's probably not going to make the team. But at least you can say you got to throw up with a sort-of real major leaguer.
* Off-days: Yes, you should go to the beach when there's a night game. (Day games start around 1 p.m., night games at 7.) If you're on the west coast, you've got the calm, warm Gulf of Mexico. If you're on the east, the vigorous Atlantic. (Another reason to forget about the central state sites.). It's the tail end of the snowbird season in March, so the beaches aren't as crowded as they'd be in January, and the water's plenty warm.
Suppose, for some reason, you don't want to see baseball every day. Just suppose.
If you're on the west coast, you'll be near Tampa, and Ybor City, its old cigar-manufacturing district, done over like Bourbon Street with bars and restaurants, hopping every night. Make sure you visit the historic Columbia restaurant and get the fabled paella. St. Petersburg has the pink art deco Don CeSar hotel on the beach, just up from the Hurricane restaurant, and its open-air rooftop bar, where they play the "1812" Overture each night as the sun sets in the Gulf.
If you're on the east coast, the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral is only a couple of hours north of the lovely Dodgertown complex in Vero Beach. Just south of the O's facility in Fort Lauderdale is Miami and its tony South Beach Art Deco District. Grab a table at an open-air cafe along the strip and spend the night, watching the supermodels strut by. You'll probably also see actor Mickey Rourke, who owns a bar there. But every trip has its downside.
Of course, Alligator Alley heads due west from Fort Lauderdale, leading into the Everglades, where you'll surely see some gators and flamingos. Being run over by air boats.
* Inside dope: Unless you're a masochist, by all means avoid going to the St. Louis Cardinals complex in Lakeland. After McGwire's record-breaking season, it'll be packed every day. And getting an autograph will be impossible. A better strategy is to look at the Cardinals' schedule and plan to see one of their road games. And forget about Sammy Sosa--he trains in Arizona.
The same is probably true for the World Series champion New York Yankees, but you should risk it just to see a game at their new ballpark, Legends Field, built to look like a miniature Yankee Stadium.
One of the better ballparks is Florida Power Park, formerly Al Lang Field, in St. Petersburg, training site of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. It's a pretty ballfield, overlooking Tampa Bay, where newly acquired D'Rays outfielder Jose Canseco is likely to hit a few spring training home runs. Plus, it's a 10-minute walk to the Salvador Dali Museum.
If there are games and teams you must see, order tickets beforehand. I've never seen a sold-out game, but spring training has increased in popularity each year I've gone and it'd be disappointing, especially if you've got kids, to turn up at a sellout.
For students of the game, there's plenty of action happening outside the lines. Walk around to watch players in the batting cages or pitchers warming up. Standing a couple of feet behind a catcher as a major league fastball pops! into his glove at 90 mph gives you an up-close appreciation of the game that you'll never get at Camden Yards.
Consult the Major League Baseball Web site at www.majorleague baseball.com/spring training for information on all the teams' spring training sites.
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