Growing up in New York City, there are a few things I never imagined myself doing, like driving a car, living in a house or attending big high school games like the ones I'd seen on TV.
Yet in the years since leaving the isolated enclave of Manhattan, I've taken pleasure in expanding my horizon and checking off all-American rites of passage, most recently, the baseball spring training road trip.
By now, it's a familiar tradition: as spring approaches, Major League Baseball teams head for camps in Florida and Arizona to work off the winter flab and get ready for the regular season. It's become a big tourist draw, with 2012 game attendee numbers in Florida expected to surpass 1.5 million as the spring training season winds down this week. A new era of enhanced training facilities and stadiums have all the 21st-century bells and whistles, but in some respects, spring training is still a throwback to a more casual, pastoral brand of baseball.
My initiation was an abbreviated tour, three games in three stadiums, with a beach condo in Indian Shores as home base. I'm not a huge baseball fan, though I have found that appearing tolerant of sports generally makes you more likeable. But I consider myself a loyal girlfriend to a Braves fan who starts counting down on January 1 to the day pitchers and catchers report, who brought me to a Montgomery Biscuits game early in our relationship. Plus, we would be staying on the beach, so I welcomed the opportunity to familiarize myself with one of the nation's most cherished pastimes.
Friends and colleagues had briefed me on themes to look out for, including the corporatization of spring training, "snowbirds" and interstate billboards warning against abortion on one side and promoting strip clubs on the other. I encountered nearly all of them, but what made the most profound impression was experiencing baseball stripped of its major corporate trappings: stadiums where puny chain-link fences separate fans from idols and beer is cheaper than in the majors (though it'll still set you back at least $5); no Home Depot-sponsored tool races or incessantly loud Jumbotron ads.
It's a magic formula that has drawn fans to Florida for decades, though people only really began coming in droves in the last two decades, said Nick Gandy with Florida Sports, a sports promotion and tourist development organization.
Tampa Bay Rays first baseman Carlos Peña poses with fans during spring training at McKechnie Field.
The advent of live remote broadcasts, which showed stadiums lined with palm trees and players with rolled-up shirtsleeves, started pulling in visitors from snow-covered states, he said. When players' salaries began to rise in the 1980s, teams turned to spring training to expand the franchise, i.e., revenue. A similar pattern emerged in Arizona, home to the 15 teams of the Cactus League, the Western version of Florida's Grapefruit League.
With 2011 game attendance surpassing 1.5 million visitors in 14 Florida stadiums, devotees worry that spring training's popularity is diluting its homegrown appeal. A hotel room near a stadium for less than $100 was hard to come by, and had we waited until game day to buy tickets we would've been shut out of two of three games.
"That's the biggest difference right there," said Gandy. "Walking up and buying a ticket on game day (used to be) easy -- lucky if you can do that anymore."
The movement of teams from old stadiums into major complexes turned spring training into big business for the teams and the communities that host them, Gandy said, bringing in roughly $753 million a year in Florida.
"You have the Atlanta Braves in 1998 going from West Palm Beach to Disney World, of all places," he said. "You know if Disney's getting involved in it there's some big business there."
Big business indeed. "It's so Disney," one man lamented as we walked out of a Braves game at ESPN's Wide World of Sports. Champion Stadium, preseason home of the Braves, is located behind Disney World's arch, and many consider the team's presence near the Magic Kingdom antithetical to the spirit of spring training. Ticketmaster runs some of the box offices flanking the ESPN Club House, where the selection of Braves gear pales in comparison to the array of apparel festooned with Disney characters.
Inside the flawless cream-colored stadium, "cast members" served food in baskets bearing Mickey ears and the tagline "where dreams come true." Donald Duck escorted a local sports anchor onto the field to throw the first pitch. When the game gets boring, you can seek a reprieve in the PlayStation Pavilion, equipped with 17 PS3 consoles, at $5 for 30 minutes.
Near the field, however, the mood in the air was more akin to a county fair than a professional baseball game. In a section of designated lawn seating, clusters of families and friends stretched out on blankets and children ran amok among stumbling drunks while couples canoodled. Plus, I can vouch for the pulled pork sandwich.
It was heartwarming stuff, the "real America" that I'd grown up seeing on TV and in movies, a place where baseball is a microcosm of the community, the underdogs win and the guy gets the girl.
But, make no mistake, real America requires a car and a license, or a boyfriend with both. And patience, because traffic's a bitch, especially in places like Clearwater, spring training home of the Philadelphia Phillies and the Clearwater Threshers (that's a shark!) the rest of the year.
Located, ironically enough, on a former Home Depot site on U.S. 19, the Phillies' Bright House Stadium represents the partnerships among local government and the franchises that have nurtured spring training. It seems to be a win-win for folks in Clearwater and tourists from up North, where the Gulf Coast is promoted year-round as a vacation destination, and not just for spring training, Gandy said.
The day we saw the Braves play the Phillies, I also learned that the beauty of preseason play is that it creates a home away from home for fans from afar. Concession stands offered Philly Cheese Steaks, knishes and P-shaped pretzels. At the bar, strangers swapped profanity-laced travel tips. In "tiki bar" outfield seating, fans sat on bar stools behind long tables, raising bottles of Coors Light in the direction of players passing by. Others of a more inebriated nature demanded that Antonio Bastardo sign a beer bucket or have his "ass kicked" and needled sports anchor Gregg Murphy with taunting, prolonged cries of "MURPH!" Fans rooted for the home team and made fun of the Braves.
Cheese steaks and knishes are available at Bright House Stadium, spring training home of the Philadelphia Phillies.
In the grassy parking lot, a leathery old man hawked collectors' cards a few feet from Girl Scouts selling cookies. A man and a child tossed a ball around while we naively sat in our car for an hour waiting to reach the interstate. We didn't have that problem leaving Disney World.
Many teams enjoy longstanding relationships with host cities, including the Phillies, who've trained in Clearwater for more than 60 years, confirming their place within the community. But smaller host cities like Bradenton enjoy a special air of nostalgia, thanks to an old stadium recently renovated to retain a look reminiscent of scenes from "A League of their Own," the only baseball movie I ever enjoyed.
McKechnie Field, preseason home of the Pittsburgh Pirates for more than 40 years, is in downtown Bradenton in between a smaller baseball diamond, a Domino's Pizza and the Boys and Girls Club of Manatee, where parking is available for $7. That may seem like a lot, but to my boyfriend, who pays $10 to park at the IBEW lot near Turner Field and then walk another 10 minutes, it was money well spent, especially for a short walk.
Fans can park next to McKechnie Field at the Boys and Girls Club of Manatee County in Bradenton, Florida.
Outside the stadium, fans tailgated on the lawn of the public works building and a Land O' Lakes truck offered free grilled-cheese sandwiches. Inside the home of the Bradenton Marauders, vendors sold Iron City Beer next to county-fair-style stalls offering kettle corn, funnel cakes and turkey legs. In the stands before the game, sun-scorched retirees vacationing as ushers chastised fans for leaning over the dugout for autographs. But they didn't actually stop them from tossing balls and baseball caps to Tampa Bay's Sean Rodriguez, who patiently smiled and signed.
What our plastic stadium bench seats lacked in shade was made for up in proximity to the Pirates' warmup area, separated from the fans by a low wall and a chain-link fence.
Fans of Tampa Bay filled the stands, their black shirts eclipsing the Pirates' St. Paddy's Day green. In front of us, a man complained to his neighbor of the difficulty of getting tickets for the Yankees at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa.
"Those New Yorkers," he muttered.
Meanwhile, his wife gave instructions to their granddaughters via cell phone on where to stand to get Sean Rodriguez's autograph. I was reminded of something my boyfriend said the day before, as we walked along the beach and listed all the license plates we'd seen so far: New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Florida, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick (Indian Shores is near Dunedin, home of the Toronto Blue Jays since 1977):
"I like the idea that all these people are on vacation to see baseball," he said.
Check that off the list!