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I drove down to Florida with my father for my first spring training experience in 1983--and I’ve been to either Florida or Arizona practically every March since! What’s not to like about saying goodbye to winter with a little--or a lot--of baseball fun in the sun?

Some of the many things I’ve come to love about heading to spring training include: ballpark proximity; watching the action in intimate stadiums that vary widely in atmosphere and amenities; modest prices; easier access to today’s and tomorrow’s stars (autograph hounds take note); and lots of camping options in the warm Florida and Arizona sun.

“Whether they travel to Florida or Arizona, fans enjoy a ballpark experience more intimate, fan-friendly, and affordable than during the regular season,” says Josh Pahigian, author of Spring Training Handbook, 101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out, and several other baseball books (including being a co-author of a personal favorite--The Ultimate Baseball Road-Trip).

Planning a spring training trip for “Grapefruit League” and “Cactus League” games is as simple as connecting the dots. It doesn’t take too much time or organization to come up with at least a game a day within easy driving distance once you’re in Florida or Arizona. In fact, occasional night games sometimes lead to day-night spring training doubleheaders for diehard fans. Maybe you’ll even see Ernie Banks, who’s famed for saying, “It’s a beautiful day for a ballgame. Let’s play two!”

A Little History

What we now call “spring training” took place as long ago as 1870 or maybe even earlier. That was the year the Cincinnati Red Stockings and Chicago White Stockings held their spring camps in relatively balmy New Orleans (compared to Cincy and Chi-town).

Organized spring training first came south as far as Florida in 1888, when the Washington Senators trained and played in Jacksonville for a short period. By 1914, several teams had made Florida their spring training home and--after the Phillies won 14 of their first 15 games in 1915 after warm workouts and games in St. Petersburg--Florida’s fate as a spring training destination for players and fans alike was solidified.

Players and their loyal fans originally arrived by train in those early years, but cars--and RVs--would soon follow the road south. Several Florida cities--including St. Petersburg/Tampa, Bradenton, Clearwater, Lakeland, Sarasota, Fort Myers, and the Orlando area--have now hosted spring training for 50 years or more.

Arizona came to the plate decades later, but the state has quickly developed into a second spring training hub for both teams and fans. Minor League teams played preseason exhibition games in the state as early as the early-1900s, but it wasn’t until pioneering Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck brought his team to Arizona in 1946 that Major League teams (and their fans) started their love affair with the Arizona sun. Back in 1946, the Indians in Tucson were joined by the New York Giants in Phoenix--with the Cactus League opener at Tucson’s classic Hi Corbet┼cField seeing Veeck’sc┼eam take the game 3-1 over the Giants (Hall of Famer Bob Lemon got the win).

The Cubs moved their spring training operations from California to Arizona in the early-1950s and many other teams would follow in the coming decades--resulting in a long-time core of eight western Major League clubs training in Arizona. More recent expansion eventually led to Arizona hosting the same number of teams as Florida--with 15 Major League teams currently holding spring training in each state at a total of 23 varied ballparks (seven stadiums currently host two teams).

A Lot of Baseball

Spring training proper lasts about 50 days or so, with actual Grapefruit League games (about 600 of them!) taking place from late February to early April.

“It’s exciting because it’s a fresh start to a new season,” Atlanta Braves catcher Brian McCann said. “It’s a time when you know you have a chance to have a good year and compete for a championship.”

Most games start around 1pm or so in both states, but it’s always best to check in advance to confirm the start time and availability of tickets. Back in 1983, my dad and I didn’t even think about crowds or buying tickets in advance. We just looked at the schedule and showed up at the next stadium for batting practice. Though certain games are more popular than others, it’s still typically easy to get a ticket.

“I always┼dell folks thad┼for most weekday games, tickets can be purchased on the day of the game,” says Nick Gandy, director of communications for the Florida Sports Foundation. “For weekend games, fans might want to look into purchasing tickets ahead of time. Weekend games, along with any game featuring the Boston Red Sox or New York Yankees, are always tough tickets.”

“Spring training is a favorite amongst visitors,” says Trish Hendrickson of the Greater Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau. “The camaraderie of baseball-goers evokes such excitement that it truly is a remarkable experience for all ages.”

Once there, kids and kids at heart will find that each stadium and experience is different. Old or new, they’ve all become more Major League-like when it comes to atmosphere and amenities. Those who can’t make it to spring training this season should keep in mind that a vast majority of the spring training stadiums in both states are also used by Minor League teams throughout the summer schedule of regular season games (I’m also a huge fan of the Minor League baseball experience).

Some ballpark highlights from my various spring training experiences over the years have to include: pre- and post-game picnic areas; open concourses that let you keep an eye on the game during food and drink runs; grassy seating berms; all-you-can-eat and -drink sections; fun bars with views of the action; family-friendly areas and games; between innings contests, character races, stunts, and more; live music; baseball simulators of all sorts (think pitch speed and more); and suites, which are mostly for groups, but sometimes for individuals as well.

Given all of this, spring training was great when I went in 1983--but it should be obvious that it’s better than ever now. So take yourself out to the ballgame--in sunny Florida and Arizona!

Take Me Out to the (Spring) Ballgame

The spring training stadium scene features new ballparks and multi-million-dollar renovations that make the spring training experience better than ever. Here’s an overview of the stadiums.

Florida’s Grapefruit League

ESPN Wide World of Sports, Kissimmee (Atlanta Braves)
Legendary manager Bobby Cox called this “the best training complex in all of baseball” and this long-time Braves fan concurs. Fan-friendly Champion Stadium feels like a mini-Major League ballpark and I can attest that their pre-game “On-Field Spectator Experience” during batting practice is a very special spring training offering.

Osceola County Stadium, Kissimmee (Houston Astros)
Conveniently located near the theme parks, this ballpark was renovated in 2002 and there are typically good seats available for most games.

Space Coast Stadium, Viera (Washington Nationals)
The “Nats” call the Space Coast home and this is also generally a good place to get a great seat the day of the game.

Digital Domain Park, Port St. Lucie (New York Mets)
Lots of Mets fans head here each year and the stadium, renovated in 2003, becomes a mini-Brooklyn for the spring.

Roger Dean Stadium, Jupiter (St. Louis Cardinals & Florida Marlins)
Palm Beach County lost the Braves when they moved to Disney, but this modern venue generally hosts a game every day and is the only stadium that has two minor league teams playing all summer as well. Roger Dean remains one of my favorite spring training venues including several restaurants nearby for a pre-game lunch or post-game drink (look for Rooney’s Public House, which is owned by the Rooney family of Pittsburgh Steelers fame).

City of Palms Park, Fort Myers (Boston Red Sox)
Many from Red Sox Nation migrate from Massachusetts and beyond each March to catch their beloved teams--including Red Sox fan Stephen King, who I’ve seen catching several games over the years. Built in 1992, a new ballpark for the BoSox is in the works.

Hammond Stadium at Lee County Sports Complex (Minnesota Twins)
Built in 1991 for the Twins when they moved from Orlando after 50+ years, pale Minnesota residents flock south to this cozy ballpark every spring for some sun and baseball.

Charlotte Sports Park, Port Charlotte (Tampa Bay Rays)
Renovated in 2009, the Rays play their spring training games under the sun’s rays here--rather than under the roof up in St. Petersburg once the regular season begins. Be sure to check-out the Tiki Bar.

Ed Smith Stadium, Sarasota (Baltimore Orioles)
I grew up an Os fan and first saw Cal Ripken Jr. play in Florida in 1983, but always felt their Florida spring training facilities were second-rate. Thus, I can’t wait to check out the first-class stadium and spring training facility renovations--to the tune of $30 million-plus!

McKechnie Field, Bradenton (Pittsburgh Pirates)
Originally built in 1923 right in the middle of a Bradenton neighborhood, this classic ballpark was renovated in 1992--but it’s still a blast from my spring training past.

George M. Steinbrenner Field, Tampa (New York Yankees)
This unique stadium with a seating capacity of 11,000+ for all those Yankees fans features ballpark dimensions and angles that are generally the same as those up in Yankee Stadium up in the Bronx. Yankees legends can often be seen in the dugout, on the field, or in the stands.

Bright House Networks Field, Clearwater (Philadelphia Phillies)
Since its opening in 2004, this has been one of my favorite Florida ballparks for good reasons: an open concourse; berm seating; a great Tiki Bar; and Philly cheesesteaks and Pennsylvania’s Yuengling beer.

Dunedin Stadium, Dunedin (Toronto Blue Jays)
Like Bradenton’s McKechnie Field, this classic 1930 ballpark is located in a neighborhood. Renovated several times, Canadian beers (and lots of Canadian snowbirds) are on tap and this wonderful little stadium.

Joker Marchant Stadium, Lakeland (Detroit Tigers)
Built in the mid-60s and long the spring home of the Tigers, this is yet another great ballpark to get a good seat. The Tigers are celebrating their 75th year in Lakeland in 2011.

Arizona’s Cactus League

Hohokam Stadium, Mesa (Chicago Cubs)
Cubbies fans from near and far pack Hohokam for one of the top spring training experiences anywhere (including spring training’s only live organ music). A new Mesa stadium for the "Loveable Losers" is in the works.

Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, Scottsdale (Arizona Diamondbacks & Colorado Rockies)
For 2011 spring training, both teams will leave Tucson for a new Scottsdale-area ballpark in the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. They will be the first Major League clubs to have a spring training site on Native American lands.

Scottsdale Stadium, Scottsdale (San Francisco Giants)
There’s always a great atmosphere here and I think the all-you-can-eat and -drink “Charro Lodge” offering behind the right field fence is one of the best experiences and deals in baseball (spring training or regular season). I┼eincludese┼asty food, cold beverages, friendly tableside service, a lounge area, and live music at select games.

Phoenix Municipal Stadium, Phoenix (Oakland Athletics)
This family-friendly stadium has a nice grassy picnic area, shaded seating, and a good selection of microbrewed beers. Pre- or post-game, sprawling Papago Park has hiking trails, picnic areas, a firefighting museum, and the Phoenix Zoo.

Tempe Diablo Stadium, Tempe (Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim)
Highlights here have to include the central location, some of spring training’s tastiest hot dogs, and great views of the Tempe buttes.

Maryvale Baseball Park, Phoenix (Milwaukee Brewers)
The Brewers (and beer stands) draw good crowds here, but there’s almost always a good ticket available for walk-ups.

Peoria Sports Complex, Peoria (Seattle Mariners & San Diego Padres)
As the first Arizona ballpark to host two teams and start the trend, this is a fan favorite thanks to a spacious family-friendly stadium and adjacent restaurants, shopping, and entertainment. Pro-active Peoria is spending more than $20 million in upgrades to make sure their city’s two teams stay put when their stadium leases expire in 2013.

Camelback Ranch, Glendale (Los Angeles Dodgers & Chicago White Sox)
The two clubs moved into this state-of-the-art ballpark last spring. It’s the largest spring training site in baseball, with 13,500 seats, 14 practice fields, and a pretty two-acre lake.

Goodyear Ballpark, Goodyear (Cleveland Indians & Cincinnati Reds)
In 2009, the Indians moved west from Florida to open this sparking $100 million-plus diamond gem. The Reds joined them in 2010 to make this a two-team ballpark. Look for the stadium’s public art collection.

Surprise Stadium, Surprise (Kansas City Royals & Texas Rangers)
This spacious western-most stadium loves welcoming kids and kits at heart with grassy lawn seating, a merry-go-round in the right field concourse, and plenty of free parking.