5 Steps to Florida MLB Spring Training Heaven
Any sports fan worth his or her salt should be planning a trip around the Grapefruit League sooner rather than later.
Every spring, Central Florida turns into the center of the baseball universe as pitchers and catchers and eventually entire teams arrive for spring training to hone their skills before the next season. It’s 15 major league teams — all within driving distance of one another in some of the most historic old ballparks in the country.
Oh, and it’s also a great excuse to set out on a sunshine-filled road trip while the ice melts up north.
General Florida Road Trip Wisdom
Before leaving for Florida, there are some general things everyone needs to know.
First: Pack sunscreen. Not to baby anyone, but I’ve seen far too many northerners have vacations ruined because they didn’t realize the full set of ramifications that come with Florida being closer to the equator. Even a cloudy day holds the risk for sunburn. So lather up — blisters aren’t a good look.
Also, get ready for Florida driving. After years of icy roads and big-city gridlock, Granny wants to go 95 down I-95. Be prepared, and grab a Sunpass for the tolls at a Publix grocery store on your first night. Grab a Chicken Tender sub while you’re there. You’ll thank me later.
Step 1: Pick Your Own Personal Tent Pole Cities
Driving to each city and staying overnight after each game is a sign both of poor planning and a misunderstanding of what this road trip can really be about!
It makes more sense basing yourself in a few centralized locales. Major cities like Miami, Jacksonville, Orlando and Tampa are too out-of-the-way and plagued with traffic.
Lakeland works well for Tigers fans (guilty as charged), while Plant City, Sarasota, Port Charlotte and Bradenton are a couple of other options on the Gulf side of the state. On the Atlantic side, go ahead and stay right in Port St. Lucie and fill up with Mets baseball. The Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals are right next door in Jupiter.
Step 2: Identify The Top-Tier Matchups...but Be Flexible!
The last thing anyone wants is to drive a couple of hours from their hotel and realize at the last minute that they’re watching their favorite team’s b-squad face off with a local college. Dial into the schedule and make a level-headed (but reasonable) effort to attempt to divine the pitching rotations.
For instance: If everything goes as planned, March 11th is a day fans will likely want to be in Dunedin, as David Price could end up pitching for the Red Sox against his former Toronto Blue Jays.
That might not happen, though, which is why the tent pole city plan above is so important. Pitching assignments and lineups can change at the drop of a hat, and it’s better to change plans in the morning than ending up at a lame game.
Step 3: Plan Around The Local Flavor
I mentioned Plant City earlier for a very specific reason. It’s the home to the Florida Strawberry Festival — a great way to spend an evening after a day full of baseball. Headliners this year include echosmith, Donnie and Marie Osmond, Cheap Trick, Trace Adkins, Martina McBride and many more.
My family and I did the Strawberry Festival-Spring Training combo a few summers back, and my kids will remember the Make-Your-Own Strawberry Shortcake for years after the baseball memories fade.
Strawberries not your thing? While heading between the two sides of the state, make a detour to Daytona Beach for Bike Week or spend a day at the Florida Renaissance Festival in Deerfield Beach (about an hour south of Jupiter and Port St. Lucie). By itself, the Tampa area is home to dozens of worthwhile stops for your trip, like the Salvador Dali Museum — a personal favorite of my art-loving wife.
Step 4: Knock Off Some More Of The Bucket List Along the Way
Being near Tampa and not getting a Cuban sandwich is a pretty significant mistake, and I’m not sure how anyone could ever forgive themselves. The Ybor City neighborhood in Tampa is where the sandwich first made its mark on the continent, and bakeries there are still the best place to get the trademark crusty bread that makes it all work. Go to La Tropicana, get the Bebe Special, die happy.
The Everglades or Keys are probably too far from the spring training scene (but seriously, if we’re talking bucket list…). A closer and far-too-overlooked option for some Florida nature can be found at the Ocala National Forest. It’s about an hour north of spring training spots in Kissimmee and Lake Buena Vista.
The corridor from Tampa to Orlando and down to Jupiter is the orange capital of the United States. Find a grove and eat an orange (or mango, grapefruit, etc…) right off the tree. It’s better than the supermarket, trust me. Hale Groves is just north of Port St. Lucie and a great place to start!
Step 5: Don’t Splurge On Tickets or Food, Do Get There Early and Stay Late
Only a rookie would buy anything but the cheapest seats available. Not only are the sightlines usually just as good from lawn seating (with a better chance to catch a fly ball), but the mid-game ability to move into a better position is practically a rite of passage.
Also, even though the situation is improving, stadium food in the Grapefruit League is lightyears behind its MLB counterparts. For the most part, we’re talking peanuts and Cracker Jack more than garlic fries or 5-pound gourmet nacho buckets. While there are exceptions to the rule, one is usually better off finding a hidden gem nearby the park and grabbing only sustenance inside.
Scoring autographs at spring training should be as simple plucking that aforementioned orange from the tree. Just be both early and polite. Get to the park during batting practice when the players are infinitely looser, more friendly and more social than during the regular season.
It’ll be the perfect souvenir from the perfect road trip.
More by Michael Schottey
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