Following the Birds south for spring training

Baseball: The Orioles will soon head south to play preseason games in the Grapefruit League. Here's a look at the schedule. Destination: Florida

January 31, 1999|By David Michael Ettlin | David Michael Ettlin,Sun Staff

Be the first on your block to cheer for Oriole Albert Belle -- and while you're at it, soak up a little March sunshine.

Spring training is coming soon to 19 ballparks across Florida, with the new-look Baltimore Orioles scheduled to appear in seven of them, and make stops in Georgia and Alabama before winging homeward in early April.

The preseason Orioles are based in Fort Lauderdale, where they are scheduled to play nine of their 14 "home" games in the first two weeks of spring training. This will prove convenient for fans hoping to see as much as possible of the Orioles with the least amount of travel.

For the last two weeks, the Birds will be mostly on the road -- and mostly along Florida's Atlantic coast. Catching every game will entail more complicated travel plans, or at least a lot more driving.

Barring schedule changes or bad weather, the Orioles will play 26 preseason games in Florida, and only two of them on the Gulf Coast, in Fort Myers some 135 miles from Fort Lauderdale: The opener on Saturday, March 6, against the Minnesota Twins at Hammond Stadium, and on Sunday, March 28, against the Boston Red Sox at City of Palms Park.

Those games, and "home" dates March 10 against Boston and March 21 against Minnesota, are the only times the Orioles will see American League opponents before returning to Oriole Park for Opening Day April 5 against Tampa Bay.

Because of the Orioles' somewhat isolated location in Fort Lauderdale, they play most of the preseason games against their nearest neighbors to the north -- the National League St. Louis Cardinals and Montreal Expos, sharing beautiful year-old Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter (50 miles); New York Mets at Port St. Lucie (85 miles); Los Angeles Dodgers at Vero Beach (111 miles); and Florida Marlins in Viera (150 miles).

Spring training will wind up with a three-city road trip -- back-to-back games March 31 and April 1 in Viera (close to Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center, which is among Florida's top tourist attractions), and stops April 2 in Atlanta to play the Braves, and April 3 in Birmingham, Ala., with the Philadelphia Phillies.

While most of the Orioles' preseason games -- and spring training games in general -- were not sold out last year, don't count on ticket availability at game time. Plan and order ahead if possible, or call on game day before heading (with a tube of sunscreen) to the ballpark.

Last year, the Orioles drew an average attendance of 4,682 at their 8,000-seat Fort Lauderdale Stadium, which is one of the largest preseason ballparks in Florida. There was no sellout; the largest crowd was 7,204 for the lone "home" game against the Boston Red Sox.

On the road, the Orioles proved a bigger draw, with an average attendance of 5,611.

The biggest turnstile count was 7,972 at the 7,200-seat Florida Marlins' springtime home of Space Coast Stadium in Viera, a growing planned community near Melbourne and Cape Canaveral. (Like several of the Florida stadiums, it has a large picnic-berm seating area to accommodate overflow crowds.)

There were several sellouts, including the lone road game against the Red Sox in Fort Myers.

This year's preseason Red Sox games -- one at home, one away -- are likely to be popular again, but the toughest tickets will inevitably be for the St. Louis Cardinals because of the presence of slugger Mark McGwire (and no doubt the quest for his autograph) after his record 70 home runs.

The lure of McGwire has accounted for an early run on tickets for Cardinal games at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, where sellouts are likely -- including Oriole games there March 9 and March 23. The Cardinals travel to Fort Lauderdale for games March 12, March 16 and March 29.

Florida Marlin games may also lure larger-than-average crowds to Fort Lauderdale for games scheduled March 7, March 17-18 -- if only for hometown appeal.

The Marlins are based in nearby Miami during the regular season, and a new Oriole, catcher Charles Johnson, is a local hero -- he went to school there and was a member of the Marlins' 1997 World Series championship team.

And who knows? Maybe he'll earn another ring this year with the Orioles. Wishful thinking? Maybe. Time for a preseason scouting trip? Definitely.

SPRING TRAINING TICKET GUIDE

Following the Orioles in Florida? Here's information on ordering tickets for home games in Fort Lauderdale, and on the road at other ballparks. (Mileage from Fort Lauderdale to other Florida stadiums is noted in parentheses.)

* Orioles: Fort Lauderdale Stadium. Prices are $12 for box seats, $9 reserved grandstand, and $6 general admission outfield seats ("formerly known as the bleachers," the team noted in announcing spring ticket plans). Seating in the outfield is on a first-come basis.

Other bargains include half-price ($3) "Kids Zone" general admission at all home games for children age 14 and under, and "Senior Day" $4.50 grandstand seats for those 60 and older at every weekday afternoon game.

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