Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Florida's Spring Training Baseball: Then and Now

People ask me what I do in winter when there is no baseball.   This is what I do.  I stare out the window and wait for spring. 
  ---Rogers Hornsby*


          Ah spring, that time of year when a woman’s fancy turns to...baseball?  Yes, it’s true.  I attended my first spring training game in 1984 and have returned to Florida to watch Grapefruit League games four times since then—most recently in 2007.

Flash back to March of 1984:  I’m in Clearwater, Florida to see the Philadelphia Phillies play at old Jack Russell Stadium.  We saunter up to a small booth, buy $8.00 tickets and enter a ball field not unlike that of high school diamonds.  Our bleacher seats are close enough to the action to hear players talking and laughing.  A few rows behind us Phillies announcers Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn sit in an open-air box; fans walk up to chat with them between innings.
Fast forward to March of 2007:  I’m on the outskirts of Clearwater to watch the Phillies play at brand new Bright House Field.  No more leisurely ticket buying on game days.  Many Phillies spring training games are now sell-outs and tickets may be purchased months in advance for $30.00 to $90.00.  The new venue, while cozy and intimate, has the feel of a minor league ballpark rather than that of a neighborhood town park.  Our seats, though more comfortable than bleachers, aren't close enough to hear players jawing.  Phillies announcers sit enclosed in a broadcast booth high above the field, inaccessible to fans.

Top photo:  I'm posing in front of Jack Russell Stadium in 1984.
Bottom photo: Entrance to the Phillies current spring training facility—

Bright House Field. (Internet photo).

Top photo:  The Phillies play in Jack Russell Stadium in 1984.
Bottom photo:  Pre-game ceremonies at Bright House Field in 2007.

                 Despite the differences during the 23 years from 1984 to 2007, spring training retains its laid-back charm.  It’s still that place where players sign autographs before games and pitchers toss balls to kids standing near the bullpen, still an experience that's worth the trip to Florida for this life-long Phillies fan.
             Florida’s Gulf Coast has seen other changes since the 1980’s:  traffic chokes the roadways, turning a formerly 20 minute jaunt into an hour-long slog; four-lane highways spread across land where orange groves once blossomed; homes and condos replace heron-filled ponds and meadows.  
             And yet... It’s March, and Florida’s 80 degree temperatures, blue skies and palm trees beckon, inviting me to return.  If you’re a baseball fan, go ahead and indulge your springtime fancy—visit this website to find out how:  http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/tickets/spring_training.jsp

“That's the true harbinger of spring, not crocuses or swallows returning to Capistrano, but the sound of a bat on a ball.”  
                                                     ---Bill Veeck**, 1976

*Rogers Hornsby (1896-1963), considered one of the best hitters of all time, played 23 seasons of Major League Baseball.
**Bill Veeck (1914-1986), longtime owner of the Chicago White Sox, was known for the innovations he brought to Major League Baseball.


Philadelphia's Ryan Howard, 2006 National League's Most Valuable Player,
autographs baseballs for devoted fans.  My nephew Mark—on left—is next in line.

Wonderful McKechnie Field in Bradenton—home of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
You can still catch a game here for $20.00
My nephews Paul and Bob are standing at the base of the palm tree.

"Two All Stars"
Phillies All-Star (and all-around good guy) Jimmy Rollins
poses with my nephew Bob (an all-around good guy too!).

View from Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg, former spring training home
of the Tampa Bay Rays.
In 2009 the Ray moved to Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte.


  1. Rita, as I might have already said before, one of the many things I admire about your Blog is the variety of topics and locations that you write about.

    Although I have a mild interest in baseball, I won't make any pretense about being an avid fan. But while on this topic, I note that you are a Phillies fan. I had forgotten that you were originally from Pennsylvania. We might have practically been "neighbors" at one point in our lives. From the late 1970s to early 2000, my wife and I lived in the adjacent State of Delaware (Wilmington to be precise).

    Thanks for posting another terrific Blog report.


  2. Hi Rita,

    I agree with John - what a fascinating discussion! And how neat that you have a now-three-decades-long personal history with these places. Your reflections on the experiences take me back to my own with various sports teams and tennis players. It's lovely that some towns and teams seem to enjoy the laid-back, old-fashioned, up-close-and-personal approach. I wonder if perhaps that's why and how kids like your nephews become lifelong fans!

    Great photos, too!

  3. Hi Vickie,
    I think with baseball, a game of nostalgia and tradition, it's especially true that some teams inspire lifelong loyalty. And there's nothing quite like spring training—seeing your team up-close-and-personal, as you say, and having the players (well, some of the players) come to the sidelines to talk with you. I can't think of any other sport that provides an experience quite like the spring training experience.
    I'm curious... have you been to professional tennis matches and met the players?

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