Spring-training baseball games offer bargain prices -- and a tan

March 06, 1994|By Jim Abbott | Jim Abbott,Orlando Sentinel

Even those who can't appreciate the precision of a perfectly executed hit-and-run play can appreciate this:

Compared to the cost of professional basketball and football exhibition games, a ticket to a spring-training baseball game is a bargain.

Admission prices generally range between $5 and $12, with bleacher seats (where you can really work on that tan) selling for as low as $3 on game days. That's less than half of what you would pay to see the Orlando Magic or Miami Dolphins play.

For that kind of money, don't expect any fancy pregame shows, wacky team mascots, promotional freebies or fireworks after home runs. Instead, plan to arrive early and watch the players take batting or fielding practice. Then saunter through the stands and down to the bullpen to check out the starting pitcher as he warms up, and listen to the players' banter.

Players and coaches are generally friendlier during March than later in the year, when the pressure to win is on. Veterans, such as Baltimore Orioles coach Elrod Hendricks, have been known to swap stories amiably with kids and adults before the games.

If hunger strikes before the seventh-inning stretch, you'll find plenty of traditional baseball fare available from vendors. Gary Weems, concessions manager at Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Fla., recommends either a hot dog ($2) or a quarter-pound all-beef Dodger Dog ($2.50) for visitors to the team's Holman Stadium. Need to wash it down? Beers range from $1.50 to $3.75.

In West Palm Beach, Fla., where the Montreal Expos and Atlanta Braves share quarters, fans can grab a complete barbecue or chicken dinner for about $6 during Expos games.

Fans also can choose from an array of souvenirs. They range from $2 key chains and pencils to official satin warm-up jackets in the $80 to $90 range.

At least one team has found there's money to be made from selling broken bats. "If a player breaks a bat during a game, I make sure that somebody runs down to get it for the concession stand," says Domenic Ruffa, director of operations for the minor-league West Palm Beach Expos. Mr. Ruffa says bats sell for $3 to $50, depending on who was using it when it broke.

Autograph hunters also have a field day during spring training, says Jim Kelly, who has been collecting signatures from professional ballplayers in Florida since 1984.

Mr. Kelly keeps a chart with updated information on all the Florida ballparks. Among his favorite spots for collecting autographs are Chain O' Lakes Stadium in Winter Haven (home of the Cleveland Indians) and Osceola County Stadium in Kissimmee (home of the Houston Astros). At those sites, fans will find plenty of opportunities to catch their favorite players as they walk to and from the field and, after the game, to their cars.

He says players were the least accessible at Plant City Stadium (home of the Cincinnati Reds) and Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg (home to the St. Louis Cardinals and Baltimore Orioles -- although the Orioles also use a stadium in Sarasota).

"At Plant City, the players leave the field through a fence in the outfield and there's no way to get at them," Mr. Kelly says. The problem at Al Lang is just the opposite: Too many exits for players to escape.

During the last decade, autograph hound Joe Costello has traveled to every spring-training park in the state except Jack Russell Stadium in Clearwater. He says he's found a growing trend to keep players at arm's length.

Because spring training falls at the same time as college spring break and the busy winter-spring tourist season, hotel rooms are in high demand near many ballparks. For that reason, hoteliers have little incentive to offer reduced rates or spring-training packages.

"We've tried doing packages before, but they were not well-received," says Peg Parshe, director for sales and marketing at the Best Western Diplomat Inn in Lakeland. "Most people prefer to be on their own schedule. If the team is traveling to Fort Lauderdale, they prefer to follow them down on their own."

Nanette Saylor, general manager of the TraveLodge Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport across the street from the Yankees spring-training stadium, says the hotel offered spring-training rates last year and would probably offer a similar promotion this year.

Some travel agencies offer spring-training excursions. For instance, Pegasus Travel in Sarasota, Fla., offers two six-day, six-game package tours, each priced at $595.

If you're going on your own, check with area hotels or visitors bureaus to find spring-training deals or the best hotel rates.

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