Florida: Spring training with Southern comfort

Grapefruit League fun for devout fans of the Orioles or regular vacationers.

February 22, 2004|By David Michael Ettlin | David Michael Ettlin,SUN STAFF

Life Begins on Opening Day," declared the T-shirt worn by Dawn Nock, who was basking in the Florida sunshine on a March afternoon at Fort Lauderdale Stadium.

Opening Day, in this case, was for the Baltimore Orioles' spring training games.

They call it the Grapefruit League, and that first week of March, when much of the grapefruit crop is nearing the end of its harvest, a new season of baseball is ready for first bloom.

But spring training is more than baseball. It's a pre-season taste of both spring and summer as Florida temperatures dance around 80 degrees most afternoons, and you can try out old swimsuits to see if they still fit after a winter in the closet.

While some baseball fans plan trips south specifically for spring training, the games can be a pleasant diversion for those visiting Florida for any reason. Eighteen major league teams work out the kinks in competition at ballparks in 15 cities and towns scattered around Florida.

The Orioles' Florida schedule this year may be better suited to the casual vacationer than the dedicated fan because the team mostly plays alternating games at home in Fort Lauderdale and away at seven other stadiums at distances ranging from 55 miles to 200 miles.

It may be tough to follow the Orioles on the longest road trip, from Fort Lauderdale to Kissimmee, where they play the Houston Astros March 14. But for those taking in nearby Central Florida tourist attractions, including Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and Sea World, Kissimmee is just around the corner.

Following the team for every game means spending a lot of time on the road. The Orioles head north for games in Jupiter's Harry Dean Stadium (home to the St. Louis Cardinals and Florida Marlins), Port St. Lucie (New York Mets), Vero Beach (Los Angeles Dodgers) and Viera in the "Space Coast" area (Montreal Expos).

They cross Alligator Alley - a stretch of Interstate 75 through the Everglades and Big Cypress Swamp - to the Gulf Coast three times for games 135 miles away in Fort Myers against the Boston Red Sox at City of Palms Park, and Minnesota Twins at Hammond Stadium.

The closest the team comes to a home stand results from the Orioles' lone open date March 22, sandwiched between games in Fort Lauderdale March 21 against the Red Sox and March 23 against the Expos, and back-to-back games March 30 against the Cardinals and March 31 with the Marlins, to close out play there.

The charm for diehard fans, and even the casual baseball follower, is the intimacy of big-league play in tiny stadiums, where the best seats cost $15 to $20 and even the cheap seats are close to the field. And many players take a little more time to sign autographs or answer a friendly question at spring training.

During the regular season at Oriole Park, such intimacy can be lost in a sellout sea of nearly 50,000 faces. Fort Lauderdale Stadium - one of the larger spring training venues - has a listed capacity of 8,340.

You meet lots of nice folks, too. I've had wonderful chats between innings during my seven spring training trips, with amiable Florida transplants from all over the nation as well as people from Maryland.

There was the father hauled south to spring training by his sons as a retirement gift; a teacher who played hooky to have a long weekend for a family drive from Anne Arundel County (about 17 hours, reaching Vero in time for batting practice); and a boy brought to spring training by his mother as a birthday present - while his father and Yankee-fan older brother stayed home.

Young Ryan Atwell held up a large orange placard proclaiming in black letters: "Ryan is 8 today PLEASE SIGN."

Ryan snared about two dozen Oriole autographs, a Cal Ripken Jr. poster and shirt from the team office, and a Cal baseball card from "a fan who thought he was cute," says his mother, Lisa Atwell, recalling their adventure in 2001 from the family's home in Fallston.

Ripken, embarking on his last season that year, happily signed the baseball card. And after games, mother and son stood by the fence outside the players' parking lot to get signatures, Lisa Atwell recalls. "We stayed out there so late one night, the people who worked at the stadium brought us food."

Some of this year's autograph signers could be future Hall of Famers. It's too early to say whether the team's new superstars - catcher Javy Lopez and shortstop Miguel Tejada - will someday be enshrined at Cooperstown. But slugger Rafael Palmeiro, returning to the team after a long hiatus with the Texas Rangers, looks like a sure thing to join the ranks of such duly-honored Orioles as Frank and Brooks Robinson, Eddie Murray, Jim Palmer and, pretty soon, Ripken.

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