— Given the current economic recession, it seems that everywhere you look these days there are great deals to be had on everything from homes to cars.
It’s indeed a buyer's market, and that theory holds true as well for Major League Baseball, which is anticipating flat-to-reduced ticket sales, at least in the first half of this season, as compared to a year ago. And that especially holds true for spring training, as fans curb their entertainment spending, and hence, trips to Arizona or Florida.
But the great traditional aspect of spring training is that, even in a thriving economy and a seller's market, fans can find plenty of free and ultra-affordable ways to enjoy baseball under the sun in the Grand Canyon State or Sunshine State. Take game day, for example.
Most spring training games begin at 1 p.m., but hours before then, fans who arrive early enough can try and scope out the neighborhood for a free parking spot. Then they can walk over and watch players practicing on fields adjacent to the ballpark — for free.
And when those players make their way from the practice fields to the locker room, or to the ballpark, well-positioned fans can snag free autographs, and with camera at the ready — a quick picture with their favorite star, also for free. By 12:30 p.m., most of the players will be inside the ballpark, but if you don’t have a ticket yet, don’t worry.
Last year, in an economy not nearly as bad as this year, I scored a $10 ticket (with a $25 face value) to a game between the host Yankees and Twins from a gentlemen out front of Steinbrenner Field in Tampa. The Bronx Bombers supposedly sold-out their entire spring schedule last season, but the laws of supply and demand can be different on game day. I scored a $5 ticket a few days later off a fan at Fort Lauderdale Stadium as the host Orioles welcomed the fanatics known as Red Sox Nation. The seat was six rows behind the Orioles dugout.
In this economy, you can largely avoid the pay-in-advance ticket surcharges and score a seat at or below face value on game day if you’re a smart negotiator, and you know what games have high demand and what games do not.
Two of the strongest draws in spring training, for example, are the Red Sox and Cubs. The most important aspect is to remain calm and assess the supply and demand market in front of the ballpark before making your move. In many cases, with the exception of the BoSox, Cubs and a few other teams, face value tickets at the box office are always a fall back option in a buyer's market, and those who don’t want to deal with any negotiation, can always buy tickets in advance online.
But even if you have to pay face value for a spring training ticket, many of which are fairly affordable anyway ($10-$15), did you know that “B games” and minor league games are free?
Well, now you do. Come mid-March, every club’s minor league prospects start playing games on adjacent fields to the main ballpark at most spring training facilities, and there is no admission charge. Likewise, unscheduled and informal “B games” are also free. These often take place before or after the paid-admission spring training game, and occur so players can get extra at-bats or pitchers can get extra work in. You won’t find a public address announcer or a scorekeeper at B games! And as always, especially if you’ve got children, foul balls are free — and plenty.
When game-day is finally over — or perhaps the next day — take a free trip to the beach in Florida to enjoy the sunset, or visit one of a small handful of free or affordable museums like the Dunedin Historical Museum with some Blue Jays memorabilia; the Sports Immortals Museum in Boca Raton; and the Jackie Robinson Ballpark Museum in Daytona.
If you’re looking for a unique restaurant for a great meal, great baseball memorabilia on its walls and perhaps a chance encounter with a ballplayer or two on the town, check out Capogna’s Dugout in Clearwater, Fla., or Don & Charlie’s in Scottsdale, Ariz.
And in the Grand Canyon State, there are 12 teams in Metro Phoenix, so you may be in luck if you want to make Ernie Banks proud and catch two games in one day, as some teams play night games and are less than a 30-minute drive away. If not, take in a wallet-friendly college baseball game at Arizona State in Tempe, which is in metro Phoenix near the Angels spring training complex, or at the University of Arizona down in Tucson. ASU alums include Reggie Jackson, while Terry Francona and Trevor Hoffman are UA alums.
A couple more tips: Pack a windbreaker for night games in Arizona and some day games in Florida, as it can be a tad nippy and windy. For a day game, don’t forget to wear a hat or sunscreen, or you’ll look like a lobster come nightfall.
Also, if your schedule allows, try and visit spring training toward the end of March, especially if you want to see your favorite player get more than just one or two at-bats. In the first week of spring, a lot of the projected starting lineup sees limited action. But as the docket creeps closer to Opening Day, starting pitchers will go about five to six innings, and the projected starting lineup will usually take three-to-four at-bats per game.
Airlines, rental car companies, hotel chains and restaurant owners all want your business, and in this down economy, they’re offering great deals to earn it. For those with a little money to spend, 2009 may just be the best year in recent memory to visit Arizona or Florida for spring training on the cheap.