— Maybe it’s only appropriate that pitchers and catchers report over Valentine’s Day weekend. After all, love is indeed in the air for baseball fans when it comes to spring training. Basking in the Arizona and Florida sun may begin now and continue until the end of March, but soaking in some rays while enjoying a big league ballgame isn’t the only hidden gem of spring training.
Allow me to introduce you to 10 more.
There’s really nothing to be scared of regarding spring training, but there are plenty of close encounters — of a good kind. Before and after practices between now and the start of spring training games, fans can get up close and personal with their favorite players, watching them stretch, workout and chum with teammates. Workouts are open to the public but if you’re not careful you could get a close encounter of a bad kind — like a foul ball straight to your noggin’.
So keep your head up as you stroll around the grounds of each club’s spring training compound because you never know who — or what — you might encounter around a corner, from a ballplayer to a broadcaster to a bat or a ball.
Sure, your vacation to the Grand Canyon State or the Sunshine State is all about baseball, but don’t be surprised if you bump into current or former ballplayers, coaches or media types on the golf course, at a restaurant or watering hole or even in the grocery store. While spring training now takes place in metropolis like Phoenix and Tampa, most of those who work in baseball tend to stick to within a five-mile radius of their ballpark.
Players don’t like being approached for an autograph during meal time, just like they don’t sign autographs while waiting in the on-deck circle. Still, many fans come to spring training just to secure autographs and most don’t leave disappointed. Workouts before spring training games begin are the best time to get up close to the players and to score autographs with less crowds. But once spring training games start, players are still accessible to sign autographs.
Fans have a responsibility however to understand players aren’t paid to sign autographs, they’re paid to perform on the baseball field. That means fans should get in position and arrive to the ballpark early enough where you have time to secure autographs before the game begins or after they are removed from the game as they head back to the clubhouse down the base line.
Know that a player will not sign seconds before the start of the national anthem, even if he is literally arm’s length away from you, not because the player is disrespectful. Picture it: everyone in the ballpark is standing at attention during the national anthem, including all of his teammates and his manager. And he’s signing an autograph? I don’t think so.
The institution of spring training is a baseball tradition, but that doesn’t mean change isn’t constant. New in 2011 in Arizona is the first dual-use facility in MLB history where two teams are in the same division. The Diamondbacks and Rockies, both of the National League West, debut at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick in North Scottsdale, with the Snakes now having the closest spring training site to its home city. New in 2011 in Florida is a revamped ballpark for the Orioles at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota where the ballpark’s old, antiquated feel is now nonexistent. 2011 also marks the final year for Boston at City of Palms Park in Fort Myers before the Red Sox open a new spring training complex in the same city in 2012.
Multiple spring training ballparks are rich in history — and they feel that way, too. Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Florida, home of the Tigers, is the only spring training site Detroit fans have known for decades.
All the great Tiger players of the past as well as other baseball Hall-of-Famers have played here, plus the Tigers old spring training ballpark in Lakeland — Henley Field — remains in use by amateur teams. Former spring training sites in Sanford, Daytona, Vero Beach, Winter Haven, Orlando, Clearwater, Cocoa Beach and Fort Myers also remain in use today, with Sanford and Daytona each boasting small ballpark museums as well. Also new in 2011 in Arizona is an additional location for the “Play Ball Experience,” a museum exhibition with great artifacts on the history of the Cactus League.
6. A schedule to meet your needs — under the lights
There’s no disputing baseball was meant to be played under the sun, but for fans looking to maximize their spring training vacation, the night time gods are also with you. The Cactus League will host 28 night games in 2011, a 10-game increase from 2010 while the Sunshine State hosts 30 games under the lights. The beauty of spring training is that — with a little planning — fans can take in an afternoon day game at 1 p.m. and a nearby night game at 7 p.m. Ernie Banks would be proud of you — let’s play two!
Many of today’s spring training ballparks are designed for roaming, with the field set below street level, fans have an opportunity to walk the concourses and take in the view before them from different parts of the ballpark. So whether you’re down the right field line holding a beer and enjoying the action or behind the third base dugout taking a picture — as long as you’re not blocking someone’s view — you can briefly soak in a variety of sightlines.
A lot of purists complain about free agency and how baseball has changed, with young studs signing huge bonuses before they’ve even swung a bat in a big league game. But there’s a positive flip side to that coin.
During the first week or two of spring training, fans get to see these future stars in action against their older peers on the 40-man roster. From Sports Illustrated cover boy, Bryce Harper, to your own team’s top prospect, they’re likely on the 40-man roster and will suit up in spring training games before being transferred to minor league camp come mid-March.
Ever been to a sporting event and you were having so much fun that you didn’t want it to end? Well, during spring training that sometimes happens. It’s called B Games. Usually, once a spring training game is over, players — often pitchers — who didn’t get their work in will stay on the field and continue playing. B Games may only last an inning or two, but it’s another unique hidden gem of spring training. B Games are not to be confused with “split squad” (SS) games, which are just like any other paid spring training game. A split squad is when a MLB team is playing in two different locations on the same day, with the roster split up.
I’ve been coming to spring training since I was a kid and something always happens that I didn’t expect — and I’m not talking about what goes on out on the field. One time, for example, I remember roaming the first base side of the main concourse at Tempe Diablo Stadium, home of the Angels, and next thing you know a foul ball literally bounces into my hand. Khalil Greene of the Padres had just fouled off a pitch from Jered Weaver — and after several weird ricochets off fans and other objects — the ball just landed in my hand. I didn’t move my position at all. Instead of going after the ball, the ball found me.
Oh, yeah, pretty nice shorts and t-shirt weather for the most part. But don’t forget your slacks and a windbreaker because night games can get pretty chilly – we’re talking about 50 to 60 degrees maybe.