Fans can follow the Birds south Florida: In Fort Lauderdale for spring training, the Orioles begin a monthlong series of games Feb. 28.

January 18, 1998|By David Michael Ettlin | David Michael Ettlin,SUN STAFF

Tired of winter and trash sports (i.e., anything but baseball)?

Spring training is just around the corner -- on the calendar, at least. Beginning Feb. 28, you can have a sneak preview of the slightly revised, not-quite-American-League-champion Baltimore Orioles as they gear up for the 1998 campaign.

Trouble is, you'll have to do it in Florida.

But that's not so bad. Figure on temperatures edging upward from the 70s, perhaps closing in on the 90s, as the Orioles swing through nearly the entire month of March in the Sunshine State.

They have scheduled 30 games against eight opponents, 15 of them at their "home" in Fort Lauderdale. The Florida "away" games are split among the other teams' spring-training homes in five towns -- except for three visits to Fort Myers, all within a 150-mile stretch of the Atlantic Coast and requiring at worst a three-hour drive.

The ballparks across Florida are small -- at least two of them new this year -- and the best seats in the house generally run $9 to $12. (Compare that, and the food prices, to Baltimore's Camden Yards stadium, where ticket prices rise to $9 for remote bleacher seats and as high as $35 in the premium "club level" this year.)

But there are disadvantages to chasing the Birds around Florida, pursuing any of the 19 other "Grapefruit League" teams that call it home during spring training, such as:

* Travel costs, which depend on variable airline fares (plan ahead, and grab the phone quickly when cheap promotional prices are announced) if you favor a quick trip over trains, buses or personal vehicles.

* The crush of tourism, as the place gets crowded and lodging more expensive, because March also brings the "spring break" collegiate migration.

* The Orioles' relative isolation in Fort Lauderdale -- which could complicate the planning for fans determined to see as many of their games as possible. Their nearest neighbors are in Jupiter, about 50 miles to the north, where the Montreal Expos and St. Louis Cardinals will share the new Municipal Stadium.

The other 19 teams all have closer neighbors in spring training, with clusters along the Atlantic Coast, on the Gulf Coast, and in central Florida.

For baseball lovers, though, there's nothing quite like it -- generally terrific weather; intimate, sometimes quirky, stadiums (in Baltimore you won't see a home-run ball chase a pelican out of a palm tree, as did a shot by a hot-hitting Jeffrey Hammonds at Fort Lauderdale Stadium last year); and for most games, plenty of seats available.

According to Orioles spokesman John Maroon, average attendance at the Fort Lauderdale home games last year was 4,190 -- with a stadium capacity of 8,340 that is one of the largest among Florida's spring training parks.

Marlins and Devil Rays

The biggest crowds there were for games against the National League Florida Marlins -- the only real home team for South Florida in the Major Leagues. (The new American League Tampa Bay Devil Rays will provide the Marlins with a little cross-state rivalry for attention this year.)

In spring training last year, and in three interleague games in the regular season, the Marlins beat the Orioles en route to a World Series championship. The Orioles have a chance to settle that score this year, beginning with four preseason games scheduled against the Marlins -- at Lauderdale March 16-17, and at Space Coast Stadium in Viera, a new town sprouting up west of Melbourne, March 25-26.

Space Coast Stadium is among my favorites in Florida, and for March vacationers much more convenient to the Orlando-area tourist meccas of Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and Sea World. The stadium draws its name from the business of the nearby Kennedy Space Center, which is also well worth a visit.

Because of the heavy tourism, and local popularity of the Marlins (whose minor league team, the Manatees, call Space Coast Stadium home), it can be a tough ticket. Six preseason games sold out there last year, and attendance in the 7,200-seat stadium averaged 6,884. It's best to order ahead of time, but that will add to the cost.

The tickets run $12 box, $9 reserved and $5 general admission -- with $3 "berm" seating beyond the outfield available only after all others are sold. The sole source for advance purchase, other than in person at the box office, is TicketMaster (407-839-3900), which will add a "convenience" fee for each ticket as well as a handling fee covering the entire order.

Theme ballpark

The Orioles won't be playing there, but the priciest spring training tickets this year likely will be for box seats at -- where else? -- Walt Disney World, and includes more than a mere game.

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