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Florida is best known this time of year for wild college spring breaks and spring training for major league baseball teams. I was in the Tampa/Sarasota area this past week and had access to no less than six professional teams playing tune-up games before the regular season begins.

The Philadelphia Phillies, the Pittsburgh Pirates, New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays, Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox all conduct their spring training camps in the area. Playing in the aptly titled Grapefruit League, each team plays more than 30 games played at local stadiums. Nearby, the Detroit Tigers, Minnesota Twins,  Atlanta Braves and Toronto Blue Jays train for their upcoming seasons.

The skies were crystal clear and the temperature was in the mid-70s the week I was in the Sunshine State. A few miles from our harbor side condo in Sarasota, the O’s played at the newly renovated Ed Smith Stadium. This stadium has undergone extensive improvements which dramatically transformed the ballpark aesthetics and radically expanded areas and amenities for fans.

Enhancements to the fan experience include the addition of a two-story concourse with shaded views of the playing field; refurbished green stadium seats imported from Camden Yards and equipped with cup holders; and a state-of-the-art audio/video system and video board (something like 100 high-def televisions are located throughout the stadium).

Improvements to the player facilities include new dugouts and bullpens; a new half field with AstroTurf; refurbished batting cages; and a practice field with the same dimensions as Oriole Park at Camden Yards. There are picnic areas down the left and right field lines and the left field pavilion area, which should be a big hit among the fans. Important concession deets: $4 hot dog, $7 chicken tenders, $6 veggie burger, $9 crab cakes, $7 pizza, $4 pretzel, $4 peanuts, $4.25 32-ounce soda, $3.50 bottled water, $6.50 domestic beer.

So the first night in town, the Orioles played the Yankees. Ed Smith Stadium only holds about 7,000 spectators making it a pretty intimate experience. And Cameron Diaz, there to root for bf Alex Rodriquez, was shoulder to shoulder with fans. Both teams got standout pitching, playing to a 0-0 tie after nine innings. Yankees captain Derek Jeter hit in his usual leadoff spot, with Mark Teixeira, A-Rod and Robinson Cano batting in their customary 3-4-5 positions. The tie game didn’t make me like baseball any more than I normally do (which isn’t that much) but it’s certainly fun to see the players up close and personal. They warm-up on the field, play to their fans, and stick around to sign autographs for the hundreds of people waiting in line after the game.

These games really are a treat for fans. Lots of fun events are scheduled for the season including opportunities for youth baseball players, in uniform, to take part in a pre-game parade on the field. There are also Boy and Girl Scout nights and nights where kids 14 and under can run the bases after the game. On March 29th, it’s Seniors Run The Bases Night where O’s fans 60 and over take to the basepaths after the game. Thankfully, they’re encourages to walk or run at their own pace.

Big league baseball — the spring training version — is a Florida tradition dating to the early years of the century. Nearly all the immortals — from Ruth to Hornsby to Mays and Clemente — have trod the basepaths of St. Petersburg, Sarasota, Bradenton and points south and north in the state.

To mix things up a bit, I also went in search of other sporting events in the area. What I found was even more fun than the baseball games (as mentioned, I’m not a huge baseball fan).  Check out this post on the women’s polo match I found at the Sarasota Polo Club.


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