TAMPA, Fla. — It’s as much a part of spring training as workouts and exhibition games: Visitors from the chilly Northeast, Midwest, Canada and elsewhere enjoying the sport while sitting in the Florida sun in short-sleeved shirts and Bermudas.
Fans have been traveling to Central and South Florida for decades to get a glimpse of veteran stars and new prospects alike during spring training, and the epicenter of the Grapefruit League is Tampa. Twelve of Florida’s 14 spring training stadiums are within about a 2 1/2-hour drive of Tampa, with the other two camps about 3 1/2 hours away.
Baseball greats like Al Lopez, Wade Boggs, Tony La Russa, Dwight Gooden and Lou Piniella all have roots here, but Alejandro de Quesada, author of the book “Baseball in Tampa Bay,” says organized preseason baseball in the area is as old as spring training itself, dating back as far as 1913 and 1914. The old St. Louis Browns set up camp in neighboring Pinellas County, the Chicago Cubs were in Tampa proper and other early camps in the area included the Boston Braves, who worked out in St. Petersburg, and the Brooklyn Dodgers, who set up shop in Clearwater from 1923-32 and 1936-40, according to de Quesada.
“Clearwater is one of the oldest sites,” he said. “Then Tampa followed suit.”
Today, 15 Major League Baseball teams — most belonging to the eastern divisions of both the National and American leagues — make Florida their offseason home. Here’s a guide to their stadiums.
GEORGE M. STEINBRENNER FIELD: Located in north Tampa, this is the winter home of the 2009 World Series champion New York Yankees. The facility’s name was changed from Legends Field in 2008 to honor Steinbrenner, the team’s longtime owner. Steinbrenner, who lived in Tampa, died last year. According to its website, the field’s dimensions are identical to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, with 11,000 seats and 12 luxury suites.
De Quesada recommends a side trip from the stadium to nearby Al Lopez Park on North Himes Avenue, where a statue honors the Cuban-American baseball great. Lopez, born in Tampa’s Ybor City neighborhood — home of the old Cuban cigar manufacturing industry — was the oldest living member of the Hall of Fame when he died at age 97 in 2005. He took the Chicago White Sox to the World Series in 1959 and also managed the Cleveland Indians to an American League pennant in 1954. Nicknamed “El Senor,” Lopez returned to Ybor every offseason.
From Tampa International Airport to Legends Field, proceed out of the airport exit to Spruce Street. Go about two miles, then turn left on North Dale Mabry (US Highway 92) for approximately a mile. The field will be on your left.
BRIGHT HOUSE NETWORKS FIELD: Clearwater has been the winter home of the Philadelphia Phillies since 1948. The 2008 World Series champs moved into 7,300-seat Bright House Field in 2004 after playing at the old Jack Russell Stadium a few miles away since 1955. Bright House has a 360-degree main concourse that opens out to the playing field, with a popular tiki-hut pavilion in left field.
From Tampa, take Highway 60 (Courtney Campbell Causeway) west. Cross over Highway 19 and at the next stoplight (Old Coachman Road), turn right (north). Go north through the Drew Street intersection. Stadium will be on right at 601 N. Old Coachman Road.
FLORIDA AUTO EXCHANGE STADIUM: The Toronto Blue Jays have spent the winter in Dunedin ever since the expansion team came into existence in 1977. This ballpark, formerly known as Dunedin Stadium, underwent a $12 million renovation in 2002, and has a more intimate feel than most. Located in a residential area, it seats just 5,500 people, according to the Florida Grapefruit League Association website.
The U.S. and Canadian flags fly side by side in the outfield, and “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “O Canada” are both played before each game.
From Tampa, take State Road 60 across Tampa Bay, then turn right on McMullen Booth Road. At Sunset Point Road, turn left. Cross US 19. At Douglas Avenue, turn right. Parking is at the second stoplight.
McKECHNIE FIELD: An hour’s drive south from Tampa to Bradenton will get you to McKechnie Field, where the Pittsburgh Pirates make their home during the offseason. The Pirates have been at McKechnie since 1969 and, according to the Grapefruit League Association, signed an agreement with the city in 2008 to stay for another three decades.
The field, with its Spanish Mission-style architecture, was built in 1922, making it one of the oldest in the league. During the 2008 spring training season, the Pirates debuted renovations including a new visitor’s clubhouse, media lounge and lights. The field has a capacity of 6,562.
Local attractions include the South Florida Museum and Village of the Arts, a neighborhood of artists’ galleries and studios.
The stadium is named after Hall of Fame manager Bill McKechnie, a Pittsburgh native and former Bradenton resident.
From Tampa, go south on I-75 to exit 220 B at Route 64. Go west on Route 64 to Ninth Street West. Turn left. McKechnie on the left.
ED SMITH STADIUM: A 20-minute drive south of Bradenton in Sarasota, fans can find the Baltimore Orioles at newly renovated Ed Smith Stadium. The retooled venue is marked by its many columns and archways and a new high-definition video board in center field.
For local sightseeing, there’s the Ringling Museum of Art, a 30-room mansion once owned by John Ringling of the Ringling Bros. circus family that now houses an impressive Rubens collection, as well as the Ringling Circus Museum. Established in 1948, it was the first in the country to document circus history.
From Tampa, take I-75 to exit 213 (University Parkway), head west on University to Tuttle Avenue, then turn left onto Tuttle and head south. The stadium is on the right at 12th Street and Tuttle.
CHARLOTTE SPORTS PARK: Despite its rich baseball history, it wasn’t until 1998 that the Tampa Bay area got its own Major League Baseball team with the expansion Devil Rays, now called the Rays.
The 2010 American League East division champs play regular season games at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. The Rays’ spring training was around the corner at Al Lang field in downtown St. Pete until this year, when they debuted at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, about a two-hour drive south down Interstate 75. According to Charlotte County’s website, the stadium features a 360-degree concourse, two outfield berms, a tiki bar and children’s play area.
The stadium’s capacity is about 6,000 seats with room for another 1,500 visitors in the general admission areas.
From Tampa-St. Petersburg-Sarasota, take I-75 south to exit 179 toward North Port-Port Charlotte. Turn right on Toledo Blade Boulevard and drive 6 1/3 miles. Turn right onto El Jobean Road-SR-776. Charlotte Sports Park is two miles ahead on the left.
CITY OF PALMS PARK and HAMMOND STADIUM: Continuing 30 or 40 minutes south down I-75 from Port Charlotte to Fort Myers, the Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins faithful can see their teams at City of Palms Park and Hammond Stadium, respectively. The venues are about seven miles apart.
The Red Sox in late 2008 agreed to stay in Fort Myers, although not at City of Palms Park. In 2012, the team will move into a new ballpark about 10 miles away.
A word to the wise: It’s tough to get tickets to Red Sox games at their palm-tree lined park, which holds about 8,000, including standing room.
The Twins have been at Hammond Stadium, which seats 7,500, since 1990. Marked by tall royal palm trees and a cascading waterfall, the park boasts a popular Beer Garden under the grandstand at the edge of the third base concourse.
Of note is the friendly rivalry between the two spring training teams each year, with the winner taking the Mayor’s Cup, awarded by the city since 1993 when the 2004 and 2007 World Series champion Red Sox moved its winter camp to town.
To City of Palms Park from Tampa, take I-75 south to Tuckers Grade, exit 27. Make a right; go about a mile. Turn south onto US 41. Continue for about 16 miles over the river into Fort Myers. Continue for a half-mile. Turn left onto Victoria. Make the third right onto Broadway.
To Hammond Stadium, take I-75 to exit 136 (Colonial Boulevard). Turn right (west) on Colonia, then left on Six Mile Cypress Parkway. Go about 10 miles and Hammond Stadium will be on the right.
JOKER MARCHANT STADIUM: Driving east from Tampa about 45 minutes takes travelers to Lakeland, where the Detroit Tigers have made Joker Marchant Stadium their winter venue for 46 years, though the team has been in Lakeland since 1934. The stadium has a capacity of 8,000 seats plus about 1,000 lawn seats.
Author de Quesada notes the Tiger complex is located on the site of a World War II flight school, the Lodwick School of Aeronautics, which between 1940 and 1945 was attended by more than 8,000 cadets. “You still see the old World War II hangars in the parking lot,” he said.
From Tampa, take Interstate 4 east toward Orlando to the US-98 S exit 32. Turn right onto US 98 S/South Florida Avenue. Turn left at the second traffic light onto Griffin Road. Turn right at the second traffic light onto Lakeland Hills Boulevard. The park is located a half-mile on the left side of the street.
CHAMPION STADIUM, OSCEOLA COUNTY STADIUM, SPACE COAST STADIUM: Driving east from Tampa on Interstate 4 about an hour and 15 minutes to the Orlando suburb of Lake Buena Vista, travelers reach the first of three Grapefruit League stadiums clustered within about an hour’s drive of each other.
Orlando is the theme park capital of the world, of course, so baseball fans can also check out Disney World, SeaWorld, Universal Studios and other attractions.
Champion Stadium in Lake Buena Vista, home to the Atlanta Braves, is the centerpiece of Disney’s 220-acre Wide World of Sports Complex. The Braves moved to the Spanish Mission-style stadium from West Palm Beach in 1998. With a capacity of 9,500 seats, Champion is the only double-decked stadium in the Grapefruit League. Take I-4 East to Osceola Parkway West (exit 65). Turn left at stoplight onto Victory Way to stadium.
Osceola County Stadium in Kissimmee is home to the Houston Astros. The team moved here in 1985 from Cocoa Beach. Take I-4 east to US 192, US 192 east to Bill Beck Boulevard, turn left on Bill Beck and go seven-tenths of a mile and turn left into entrance.
Space Coast stadium in Viera is home to the Washington Nationals. Named in honor of NASA facilities in the area, the park was built in 1993 and seats 8,100. Take I-95 north to Wickham Road (exit 191), turn left onto Wickham and then right at the traffic circle onto Lake Andrew Drive. Go about 1 1/2 miles through the Brevard County government office complex to the traffic lights. Turn right on Stadium Parkway. Space Coast Stadium is a half-mile away on the left.
Two additional stadiums to the southwest are more than a 2 1/2-hour drive from Tampa: Roger Dean in Jupiter, home to the St. Louis Cardinals and Florida Marlins, and Digital Domain Park, in Port St. Lucie, home to the New York Mets.