Spring training begins for players this week with the first full workouts. Opening Day at Fort Lauderdale is March 4. The Orioles' first opponent is the Marlins - the 2003 World Series champion. That distinction could produce high demand for tickets at Fort Lauderdale, where crowds have increased during the nine years that the Orioles have played there.
The team had an attendance last March of 71,453 during 15 games - the average of 4,764 representing a slight drop from 2002, in part because of the late addition of one game to the schedule and its low ticket sales, according to team spokesman Bill Stetka.
As a promotion since last year, the Orioles have offered free spring training tickets as an incentive for fans buying season tickets to Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
The difficulty of getting spring training tickets depends on the lure of particular teams or players.
Based on early ticket sales at Fort Lauderdale, the lone Red Sox visit March 21 and the only scheduled night game there, March 27 against the Marlins, are likely sellouts.
The Red Sox and New York Yankees, the latter with a 10,000-seat stadium in Tampa, are big draws in Florida, where New Englanders seem happy to flee in winter and retirees with New York accents abound.
The popular Atlanta Braves play at Disney's Wide World of Sports, which built a fancy spring training venue and negotiated a long-term lease with the team. The Disney-Braves combination makes for a tougher, pricier ticket, topping out at $20.50 for the best seats.
The St. Louis Cardinals (with the Marlins, the Orioles' nearest neighbor) peaked in ticket sales during the last years of slugger Mark McGwire's career. He's been retired for two seasons, so tickets to see the Cardinals may be easier to get on short notice. Prices for the best seats for both teams' games at their shared Harry Dean Stadium are the most expensive in the Grapefruit League at $21 and $22.
By comparison, Oriole tickets in Fort Lauderdale are $15 for box seats, $10 reserved grandstand and $7 general admission bleachers ($3 for children age 14 and younger) - with advance-sale grandstand seats for seniors $5 on weekdays.
Spring training can be habit-forming. For Dawn Nock and her friend Nancy Warner, of Dover, Del., it has become an annual two-week vacation.
"It's something I wanted to do before I turned 40," Nock says of her pre-season ritual begun in 1996. "I made it."
Nock, supervisor of licensing and jury commissioner for the Queen Anne's County Circuit Court, says she is getting ready for her ninth trip, and looking forward to more than baseball.
The trip, Nock says, has the feel of a family reunion. She sees many of the same vacationers every year at the Sea Shell Resort Motel in Pompano Beach - a block from the surf, and closer to the ballpark than many of the more expensive digs a few miles south along Lauderdale's beach.
And Nock says she is pleased with the Orioles' 2004 prospects: "This year, we actually have a team to watch," she says, referring to the off-season acquisitions of Lopez, Tejada and Palmeiro, and the return of Sidney Ponson to the pitching mound after a brief stint with the San Francisco Giants.
On paper, the Orioles look like contenders. And at spring training games, you can get a look at just how good the team might be.
The Orioles are scheduled to close out spring training with an exhibition game against the Cincinnati Reds on Saturday, April 3, in Chattanooga, Tenn., and fly home for the season opener April 4 at Oriole Park, where undoubtedly it will be a lot colder, a lot more crowded and more expensive than at Fort Lauderdale Stadium.
But, hey - that's baseball.
WHEN YOU GO
Getting there: Fort Lauderdale is nearly 1,100 miles from Baltimore - at a minimum one day's drive. Several major airlines offer connecting service between BWI and Florida locations. In addition, Southwest Airlines (800-435-9792; www.southwestairlines.com) flies nonstop to Fort Lauderdale.
Getting around: If you follow the Orioles on the road, book a rental car with unlimited mileage. This year, I found an online deal through Hertz (800-654-3131; www.hertz.com) for a $115.76 weekly rate (before taxes and airport fees) combining a AAA discount and a Hertz promotion.
Lodging: Even in March, when prices can run $150 to $300 a night at oceanfront hotels in Fort Lauderdale, bargains abound. It's easy to find lodging for $60 to $80 a short distance from the water in smaller motels in towns like Pompano Beach and Hollywood.
Dawn Nock's favorite place, the little Sea Shell Resort Motel in Pompano (800-536-0567; www.seashellresortmotel.com), has a one-bedroom efficiency at $75 and is about a 10-minute drive from Fort Lauderdale Stadium. I've stayed nearby for comparable prices at the Ronny Dee Resort Motel (954-943-3020), which recently changed ownership.
Orioles tickets: For the Orioles at Fort Lauderdale, call 954-776-1921 for information or a faxable order form. Or you can visit the team's Web site, www.theorioles.com. The Major League Baseball Web site, www.mlb.com, includes links to spring training information and tickets for all teams in Florida (as well as the other big-league squads making up the Cactus League in Arizona).
For more information about the Fort Lauderdale area, including lodging and attractions, visit www.sunny.org or call 800-227-8669; for various Florida destinations, visit www.flausa.com.
David Michael Ettlin