Spring Training Travel: A Baseball Vacation Guide
With the 30 teams evenly split between Florida (the Grapefruit League) and Arizona (the Cactus League), baseball's spring training is a big deal for teams anxious to sell tickets, airlines and hoteliers hoping to fill their facilities, and fans seeking close-up encounters with their heroes.
Lisa Blumenfeld, Getty Images
Once conducted almost in secret so that players could prepare for the regular season with privacy, spring training has blossomed into a tourist attraction. Because even the largest ballparks are only one-fourth the size of their regular-season counterparts, tickets for top teams can be tougher to find. That means fans of the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and even the Chicago Cubs need to plan ahead – surfing the internet to purchase choice tickets the minute they go on sale.
Where teams play
To make maximum mileage from minimum time, the best bet is to find accommodations in a central location and plan multiple day-trips. That's easy for Arizona, where virtually all the teams train in or around Greater Phoenix, with three teams in Scottsdale alone. The World Champion Giants have their own facility but the other two, the Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks, train in the newest of all spring training parks, Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. It hosts its first exhibition game when the two occupants play each other on Feb. 26.
Cactus League parks are also shared in Surprise (Rangers, Royals); Glendale (Dodgers, White Sox); Peoria (Mariners, Padres); and Goodyear (Indians, Reds). Two single-team ballparks exist in Phoenix for the Brewers and A's, while Angels occupy a scenic site in Tempe and the Cubs cavort in their long-time Mesa base.
In Florida, the "Grapefruit League," only Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter hosts two teams – with either the St. Louis Cardinals or Florida Marlins hosting a game every day once the 30-game exhibition slate starts. The Marlins are the only team that goes north for spring training but no longer the team that trains closest to home; the Diamondbacks, moving north from Tucson to Scottsdale this spring, have shortened the distance from their home park to less than an hour.
The 2011 Grapefruit League map shows clusters of clubs on both coasts plus a handful in the center of the state. The Gulf Coast configuration stretches from Dunedin (Blue Jays) south to Clearwater (Phillies), Tampa (Yankees), Bradenton (Pirates), Sarasota (Orioles), Port Charlotte (Rays), and Fort Myers, where the Red Sox and Twins train in separate ballparks.
On the Atlantic side, north to south, are spring training camps in Viera (Nationals), Port St. Lucie (Mets), and Jupiter (Cards and Marlins), while the midstate I-4 corridor, around Orlando, includes the Astros (in nearby Kissimmee) and the Tigers in Lakeland.
Even Disney has gotten into the spirit of spring training. The Atlanta Braves have trained at Walt Disney World's ESPN Wide World of Sports since 1998 (see the video, below). The park is maintained so well that it has even attracted several big-league contests, with the Rays hosting the Rangers in an effort to expand their fan base beyond Tampa Bay.
How spring training works
While veteran players view spring training as tune-up time, young players see it as audition time. They have to put up or shut up, convincing managers to keep them in mind as they pare rosters to the maximum 25 players by Opening Day on March 31.
Some teams – especially bad ones – often have three times more players in uniform when camp starts. Many are minor-leaguers eager to make an impression or over-the-hill veterans hoping to squeeze another year out of their aging bodies.
A few days after pitchers and catchers report (usually in mid- to late-February) along with injured position players, full squads begin workouts. In most camps, that means morning calisthenics, clinics in fundamentals, and intrasquad games.
Most workouts are free to watch and are far less crowded than games, allowing autograph hounds the best access to players they can ever have.
For autograph hounds, photographers, and sun worshippers alike, exhibition season is just that: an exhibition. Games don't count, there's no pressure on players or managers, and the Grapefruit or Cactus League won-lost records are printed in newspapers without any recognition of league affiliation. If games go past the regulation nine innings, they often end in ties because visiting teams don't have enough pitchers.
In fact, visiting teams almost never bring a full slate of stars. Major League Baseball asks that they bring at least three, since fans buying tickets want to see big-leaguers instead of bush-leaguers, but that rule is rarely enforced.
Some players will go out of their way to be accommodating autograph requests. When Cal Ripken, Jr. was an active player, he once signed autographs for 90 minutes after a game at West Palm Beach Municipal Stadium was rained out. An Orioles teammate held an umbrella over his head to keep the autographs from smudging.
Most players will also pose for pictures, especially before or after workouts. On the other hand, almost all will refuse to sign while eating, playing golf when they're off duty, or otherwise enjoying their time away from the ballpark. Fans who perch at the players' parking lot will generally find autographs easier to acquire when players arrive than when they leave.
No matter what, the endless parade of shorts and bikini tops makes baseball spring training a tourist attraction in more ways than one. That casual atmosphere means there's always the chance that something funny or unexpected might happen.
In 2005, Seattle pitcher Felix Hernandez found that his hair was too bushy for his cap – it fell off 11 times in one inning. He decided getting a haircut was better than getting cut.
Then there was the time Babe Ruth was chased by a Florida alligator in the outfield, Shawon Dunston was bitten by a scorpion in the clubhouse, and Dale Murphy was asked why he signed autographs left-handed when he batted and threw right-handed.
"I'm amphibious," said the two-time MVP.
Former AP newsman Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ is the only U.S. journalist who covers baseball and travel exclusively.
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