Today's grativibe is about translating a father's passion into a new family tradition.
Would you say you are a baseball fan? Would you say you like sunny vacations? For the Smiths, the answer to both of those questions is a hearty ‘heck yeah’! I want to share with you how we stumbled across the American tradition that is Major League Baseball Spring Training in Florida, also known as ‘Grapefruit League’ baseball, and why we enjoy it so much.
But first, a little history: Spring training by major league teams first became popular in the 1890s and by 1910 was in wide use. Hot Springs, Arkansas, has been called the original "birthplace" of spring training baseball. After holding spring training at the Hot Springs Baseball Grounds, the then-Chicago White Stockings went on to have a successful season and other teams took notice. The Philadelphia Phillies were the first of the current major-league teams to train in Florida, when they spent two weeks in Jacksonville, Florida in 1889. In 1914, four teams were playing in Florida in the spring, and that year is considered the real start of the so-called Grapefruit League.
I have always been mildly curious about Spring Training thanks to my Dad’s life-long deep love of the sport. In 2015, Kim and I attended our first Pittsburgh Pirates Spring Training and stayed in Bradenton, where the team plays. We saw a couple games, we stumbled on a Pirates charity party at our hotel, and we had some fun in Bradenton, but we didn’t venture very far. It was OK. I felt like there was something I was missing, so the deep urge to return lingered.
Kim and I, for a while, had a sort of “race-cation” thing going on, and were shopping for a nice race for the following year. My personal philosophy was that I ~needed~ to do at least one half marathon in my life to be a “real” runner. My beloved Kim is all about the race bling, and it was her love of medals that drove our Google searches. We poked around on the internet, just cruising for nice medals. Up pops a shiny silver and aqua one with dolphins on it; that got our attention. And will you look at that – the race is in Sarasota in March. We can do a race AND go to Spring Training, all in one trip! But, if we were going to make this the best vacation ever, we needed to find an awesome, vacation-y place near Bradenton. It took just a few clicks to find historic Anna Maria Island, a smidge west of Bradenton and less than thirty minutes from McKechnie (now LECOM) Field. Perfection. Next year will be our fifth year of staying on Anna Maria.
The reasons why Spring Training is so great continue to reveal themselves as we continue to attend. The first game we ever attended was when the Phillies came to Bradenton to play the Pirates. Whether it's hockey, football, baseball or tiddly winks, ANY game against a Philadelphia team is dead serious for Pittsburghers. As we walked towards the field I remember joking with a couple Philly fans standing in a doorway and they laughed like – well, like they weren’t Phillies fans – they were super-friendly and laid back!
I was really anticipating what we might see once we got into the ballpark, curious how many Phillies fans would be there. Once inside and seated I looked around, I watched the fans streaming in, wearing every team T-shirt you can think of. Brewers, Cubs, Orioles. That’s when I realized Spring Training is a chance for fans to see ALL the teams, because they are all in Central Florida. It’s not about competition – it’s just about enjoying baseball! Another wonderful blog I have found called Lifestyles AFTER 50 produced this great map for all you fans out there showing where all the Grapefruit League teams play.
The second thing I recall noticing is all the older fans. It’s Florida of course, so there are lots of retirees and older vacationers. But lots of little kids were there with them, too... grandparents introducing their grandkids to see the Great American Game in smaller, very accessible stadiums where you can see the player’s faces. Explaining the game like my Dad did to me. Enjoying extended time in a great setting, enjoying the pace and thinking of the game, telling the stories of the players they might see after the game, planning which autographs to get, making true memories.
I also got a glimpse into my medical future because everyone was wearing shorts and you could tell that lots of the older fans had had knee replacements – ‘train track’ scars as they call them. There I’ll be, 75, in these stands, in the sun, with my fancy new knees, just like those guys!
Number 3 thing: All these fans… young, old, teens, newlyweds, spring breakers... they know their baseball! They know their team, they’ll know something about your team, they’ll know what other teams the players have played for, their reputation, your team’s coaches. And they just love talking baseball. I learn something at every game from the people who sit next to me. In 2016 I learned about the history of the Atlanta Braves. I compare these crowds to the masses of people who fill PNC Park on Opening Day, who are fans for sure, but on average are not the same as the deeply knowledgeable crowd at Spring Training. And again with the Spring training crowd, no sense of competition, or ‘my team’ vs ‘your team’. Just people who love the game. Competition is for the regular season.
There is a progression to the time the teams spend in Florida that adds to the experience we have there. Pitchers and catchers show up at the end of the second week in February, with the full squad arriving 4 or 5 days after that. Also, in the early part of Spring Training, extra players participate – promising minor leaguers from the teams’ farm system, non-roster invitees who might be older players without a contract, trying to stay in ‘the show’, who can often bring great experience and advice to the clubhouse. But the most interesting place to be in the earlier part of training is Pirate City, which is where the younger players stay in a dormitory-like facility and play practice games and do skill-building drills. In my mind, you are a REAL Spring Training officianado when you are a regular Pirate City attendee and know what seem to be the unwritten mores.
I am still doing some investigation about Pirate City; we have an inside source and we will be attending earlier next year so I will post more next March. But here is what I know so far. It is NOT in the same location as LECOM Field – it is a few miles east, but still in Brandenton, at 1701 East 27th Street East. Nearby is one of the gems and a sponsor of Pirates Spring Training, Mixon Fruit Farms. So friendly and fun!
There are four practice fields named after Pirates Hall of Famers: Roberto Clemente, Honus Wagner, Pie Traynor, and Willie Stargell. The facility and field are more active in the first few weeks of Spring Training. Mornings are for stuff other than actual practice (weights, studying, etc.), and afternoons are for drills and practice games. But the cool kids know that you just show up a little before 1 pm on practice days. There are no published schedules. Once you park, you walk through the entrance to the fields and you get a paper schedule from the guy at the gate. You will find seating for – maybe – 100 people - that’s it. Pirate City is for the hardcore baseball people. The REALLY cool kids bring their aluminum fold-out lawn chairs and have ‘their spots’ to watch the games. If you are in someone’s space – you better believe they will tell you! Gotta respect their fan prowess.
This list of tips and insights could, honestly, be a book. I started a secure Facebook page with friends and other Pirate fans to pass them all along as I learn them, whether the tips are baseball-oriented or for vacationing!
Let me wind up this Spring Training Introduction with some cliffhanger stuff for potential future posts: LECOM Field has a ‘Tiki Deck”; Pirate City is Ground Zero to meet famous Pirates of yesteryear, The Pirates President and GM have set seats so you can say 'hi' to them any time. Anna Maria Island is OH-SO-GREAT and has everything, there is a great microbrewery right across from our regular parking place for the games, and there are several easy ways to stalk your favorite Pirates players, coaches, and press corps. I will share what I can based on your questions, and I will continue to learn as the Smiths continue to attend Spring Training in the future – because I wouldn’t miss it!