Spring Training 2018: 5 days, 6 games, 1 interview, a whole lotta fun!

“I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.” – Blaise Pascal, mathemetician and philosopher

“What he said!” – Greg Prescott, blogger

OK, in all honesty, I DID have time to work up a proper blog, but I procrastinated too long. And with my first two MiLB games coming up this weekend, I didn’t want my spring training exploits to go un-blogged. Remember that post I did on my trip to see the Williamsport Cross Cutters?? Exactly!

2018 Spring Schedule

Over the course of a couple of weeks, my baseball (and misc.) schedule included:

March 4 – jogged (and walked) a 10k over a HUGE bridge in Florida
March 6 – Yankees at Tigers in Lakeland
March 7 – interview with Craig Warzecha of the Bradenton Marauders
March 7 – Orioles at Rays in Port Charlotte
March 8 – Astros at Braves in Kissimmee
March 10 – Yankees at Pirates in Bradenton
March 23 – Reds at Rockies in Scottsdale
March 23 – Diamondbacks at Indians in Goodyear

Phew! And these were just vacation games! I had in the back of my mind I would do some sort of post, but I didn’t treat them as “blog games.” Rather, most of the time I sat in my seat during the game and enjoyed the food and action. That said, I did manage to take 495 photos with both my Brownie and my phone. That’s nearly 14 rolls of film. For those younger readers, back in the day we had cameras that used film, and you had to take it somewhere to get it developed, and you’d get your photos back in a week!
kodakMany of the photos aren’t blog worthy, and even though some of them did turn out quite nicely, I had to narrow it down. That, or make two blog posts. But at the rate I’m going, that second post might not ever happen!

Rankings

It wasn’t until the end of the first week that I decided to do something different – rank all the parks from least favorite to awesome place to see a game. Purely subjective, and I am sure my opinions are quite different from others. Usually I don’t get too subjective in my posts about stadiums. In fact, in the past I have put lipstick on pigs and made them look like beauty queens when it comes to describing my adventures. So indulge me a bit and lets get to the rankings!

Number 6 – Champion Stadium at ESPN Wide World of Sports, Kissimmee, FL

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There’s nothing inherently wrong with this place. But, there’s nothing inherently right with it either. It’s a nice enough stadium, built in 1997, and it has hosted the Braves every year since. Sight lines were fine, plenty of free parking (if you don’t want to pay for the upgraded parking), and clean. But… it lacks personality. No local flavor. Food options were straight from Walt Disney World, pretty much limited to hot dogs and chicken tenders. I didn’t see any local vendors. With no minor league team playing there (although the Rays had their AA affliate there for a few years before moving to Montgomery), the gift shop was rather bland, with generic Braves attire and some Mouse stuff. Also, to me, the seats seemed small. I was right behind home plate, usually premium seats, and it just had a very cramped feeling.

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Later in the game, I moved to the upper deck. Nice view! But fake pennants in the outfield with sponsors…. bleh. Just seemed like an antiseptic place.
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The Braves announced in 2017 the will be moving to North Port, FL, in Sarasota County, in 2020. Prior to that, they were also eyeing a piece of property in St. Petersburg. So if you are in Orlando next spring, you can check this place out. Otherwise, head to one of the other locations below!

Number 5 – Charlotte Sports Park, Port Charlotte, FL

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Truth be told, the difference between 5 and 6 was greater than between 5 and 1. I’ve been to Charlotte Sports Park before, and I would go again! It’s relatively new, very clean, and home to the Stone Crabs, the Florida State League affiliate of the Rays. They’ve added a few things in the last couple of years that make it even more attractive than two years ago, when I was last there. I wish they had a few more local options on food, but other than that, it’s a great place to watch a game!

Something you don’t see at Cactus League games:
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Park entrance:
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Tough choice for lunch!
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One thing I love about spring training is that for a reasonable price, you can sit very close to the field and get some interesting pictures.

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I gotta get me some of these socks!
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A little fun drama in the stands. At one point, Rays first base coach Ozzie Timmons gave a young fan a ball. About a half inning later, the same fan yelled for the ball as the Rays were coming off the field, and got the ball. He was (politely) heckled, and we (collectively in our section) informed Timmons, who teased the boy about being a ball hog! I guess I’m just jealous because they never throw the ball to old men like me!

Finally, just a couple of action pics:
Beating the throw to third!
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Number 4: Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, Scottsdale, AZ

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To be honest, the margin between 4 and 1 is razor thin. I waffled on this one between 2, 3, or 4. Don’t let the #4 ranking fool you, the spring home of the Diamondbacks and the Rockies is an incredible facility! It’s the first MLB spring training facility to be built on Indian land in the nation, and offers breathtaking views of Camelback Mountain, Superstition Mountains, and others, and there are 12 practice fields! What I really liked was the integration of natural vegetation in and around the park.

 

I wish I coud say I took this photo, but it was on the fence outside of the batting cages:
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I was a bit leary going to yet another stadium that didn’t have a minor league team as a tenant. But the folks at Salt River Fields didn’t disappoint. On the contrary, I think they had everything EXCEPT chicken tenders!

My trip to the Phoenix area was not a direct one. I was in Las Vegas for work Monday through Thursday, and got up at 4am to catch a 6:40 flight to Phoenix. By the time I got to the stadium, EVERYTHING looked good. I think I chose well: a sonoran dog, which was a hot dog, wrapped in bacon, with beans, pico, and drizzled with mayo!
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The big question is, is this dessert or a fruit serving??
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The consourses were wide open, and lines at the concession stands never seemed to be long. It was really a great place to watch a game!

Note: I only had my cellphone and not my regular camera, so no action shots. But that’s ok, I had a great time watching the game!

Number 3: Goodyear Ballpark, Goodyear, AZ

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Any other day, any other survey, and I would have ranked Goodyear Ballpark #1, if just for the sunset! One day I will do a post of best all time stadium sunsets, and this stadium will get their due!

Goodyear Ballpark was a fun place to visit after a long day. This was my second stadium visit in the Phoenix area after travelling early in the morning, and it left me with great memories while I was flying the redeye back from Phoenix. With a capacity of 10,000, it seems like a much more intimate setting, as they have just one level of seating. They do have quite a bit of outfield berm seating, though.
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Goodyear Ballpark serves as the home to the Reds and Cleveland. While I didn’t get a chance to see any of the practice facilities, the stadium facilities seemed top notch. Plenty of local vendors, and again, nary a sign of chicken tenders! They also had a large outfield bar with an impressive happy hour!

What I liked most about this park was how family friendly it was. Not only did I see a few families playing catch well into the evening, they have a wiffle ball field that plenty of kids were taking part of. This was the primary reason they ranked #3!
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Probably the only reason Goodyear Ballpark didn’t rank higher was because of the lines at the concessions. I waited 20 minutes for my taco salad, which was delicious by the way, but I noticed similar lines at all the other locations. Maybe the situation was made worse by the fact that the concourse wasn’t quite as wide as other parks I’ve been to.
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I did venture into their souvineer shop. Anyone who follows me knows that I hate coming away without any swag. I did come away empty handed, though, for two reasons. I did find a shirt (below) that would have been pretty cool to have, but they had limited sizes, so I passed. The other reason was that politically and ethically, I couldn’t in good conscience buy anything from Cleveland that had the Wahoo logo, which they had plenty of. While Cleveland did announce they were limiting the use of the Wahoo logo, it was found in full force in the shop. Since I have a good friend who is Native American, I just couldn’t reconcile myself to buying anything with their logo. Hopefully others will feel the same way.
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All in all, a great experience in Goodyear!

Number 2: Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium, Lakeland, FL

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This was my second trip to Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium. My first visit was the very last spring training game in 2016, before major ($48 million major) renovations to this ballpark were undertaken. The renovations wiped out the home of the Lakeland Flying Tigers, who had to play their 2016 home games at nearby historic Henley Field, home of the Florida Southern baseball team. I have to say I was overwhelmed with the renovations!

I won’t list out all the renovations (you can read about them here), but they made a huge difference. One very noticeable difference was the change in seating. Prior to the renovations, Joker Marchant had a large, stand alone general admission seating area down the left field line, and a smaller one down the right field line.

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Photo credit: littleballparks.com

Here’s how it looks now:

As you can see, they’ve also added colorful outfield seating!

They did all this and maintained the Spanish mission facade on the outside, which adds a special charm to this stadium:
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The Tigers/Flying Tigers stayed true to their roots as well. The Flying Tigers actually get their name from the Lodwick School of Aeronautics, which began in 1940 to train pilots. They were able to keep this theme throughout the ballpark.
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Speaking of food, I’ve been to many ballparks and have somehow resisted getting the nachos in a helmet. I finally gave into temptation!
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Speaking of food, one thing I love about this place is they serve fresh strawberry sundaes. Most folks associate central Florida with organges, but it’s also known for their strawberries. These make their way through the stadium mid game!
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The team store was first class all the way, with both Tigers and Flying Tigers gear. And yes, I came away with a Tigers cap with a spring training logo!
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One thing I thought was really cool was they had maps of where all the other teams play. Here’s a map of all the other Grapefruit League teams:
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Compare this to 1975, when I was growing up in Florida as a kid, of all the teams in Florida!
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One fun thing about the game, a young fan was trying to get the crowd going by chanting “let’s go Fiociello, let’s go”. It didn’t roll off the tongue like ‘let’s go Tigers, let’s go” but I have to give him credit!!
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I love spring training. You get football uniform numbers. I can imagine the PA announcer saying, “Now batting, number 74, wide receiver for the Tigers, XXXXXX”
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Even with all the renovations, this is a throwback stadium. It’s located in a neighborhood of Lakeland, just a short drive from either Orlando or Tampa. If you are in the area for either spring training or Florida State League action, this is a must see!

Number 1: LECOM Park, Bradenton, FL

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LECOM Park, or as it was when I grew up, McKechnie Field, is the oldest park in my rankings. It is the second oldest park used for spring training (opening in 1923) as well as the second oldest in the Florida State League, behind Jackie Robinson Ballpark, which opened in 1914. The grand dame of stadiums on the west coast of Florida, though, has shown no signs of aging, and is my favorite park to visit in Florida! This was not my first visit to McKechnie Field.. er, LECOM Park (hey, old habits never die), and will not be my last. You can read a previous review here on my original blog website, and I also included it in my 2015 superlatives writeup here.

The Pirates/Marauders have a very laid back setting to watch a game. Check out all the chairs outside the stadium to relax:
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They also have great eats and drinks, with local beverages from Cigar City from Tampa, and shark bites!
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Shark bites won out!
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They also had a local beer that was available in a small growler. I apologize I don’t recall the brewer but it was just as delicious as the Marauders cap that I bought that game!
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LECOM Park also has an outfield bar that has a great view of the park. I like this shot because it shows the friendly confines of the park.
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The Pirates have been training in the Bradenton area for 50 years! In addition to having many celebratory photos, they had quite a few autograph opportunities for fans, one thing that I love about spring training. While LECOM Field has grown up over the years, they seem to keep their identity as a fan friendly stadium!

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I didn’t get too many in-game photos because I was enjoying myself with the fans and the setting of the game. Here are a couple. I’d like to point out that even the local police department are into the Pirates games with their caps!
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And I love their mascot!
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At the end of the day, I couldn’t help myself, and I did visit the shop:
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2018 Summary

All six ballparks had more pros than cons. I definetely had my favorites, and would love to hear your comments on the parks I visited. In the mean time, I will see you out at a game this spring and summer!

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Gosh I remember McKechnie Field from my only spring training trip — a long time ago. I think it was the one that, many years ago, was near a Tropicana Orange Juice processing plant and the entire ballpark smelled vaguely of warm orange juice in a way that wasn’t unpleasant but was a little strange. Glad you had some good spring training trips!

    Like

    1. gregprescott says:

      Thanks! I love going to McKechnie, and very cool that you remembered it! Hopefully I will have the chance to catch a game there this summer, non blog related!

      Like

  2. Wow great photos! I remember watching Ficociello with the Whitecaps a few years ago, so thanks for the Tigers pics. I need to make a Spring Training trip one day…
    -Mike

    Like

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