Head south to see Orioles, Nationals play

Spring training offers chance to see teams in an intimate setting

Destination: Florida

February 13, 2005|By David Michael Ettlin | David Michael Ettlin,Sun Staff

Baseball fans, how about this for a 2005 season fantasy: the Baltimore Orioles vs. the new Washington Nationals in a "parkway" World Series.

It might as well be a thousand miles away. And in a way, it will be -- in Florida this year at spring training, as players shake off the winter rust and fans get three chances to see the Baltimore-Washington Parkway neighbors play ball.

Barring an unlikely World Series matchup, the teams will not meet again during the regular season from April to October.

But spring training is just around the corner, and for the casual vacationer as well as the diehard fan, the preseason games scheduled across much of Florida usher in a new year of baseball.

Some folks make the trip every year, and who can blame them? The tickets are cheaper, the ballparks more intimate and the weather a lot warmer than up north as temperatures usually reach the low 80s by early March.

And this year, there's that Baltimore-Washington thing to spice up spring training -- as if the first swings by Oriole newcomer Sammy Sosa are not enticing enough.

Debut Day for the Washington Nats -- formerly the Montreal Expos -- is March 2, at home in Space Coast Stadium in Viera against the New York Mets.

The Orioles open spring training on the road March 3 against the Florida Marlins at Jupiter, and play their first home game March 4 at Fort Lauderdale Stadium, also against the Marlins.

And that sets the stage for the March 5 meeting in the first of the Orioles-Nationals best-of-three 2005 Interstate 95 Series -- which I have named for the overcrowded highway between their spring training homes about 150 miles apart.

Driving time: about as long as a nine-inning game, barring the traffic jams that induce many travelers to favor the Florida Turnpike a few miles to the west.

The Orioles and Nationals meet twice more, March 13 and March 25, both at the stadium in Viera, a planned community near Melbourne.

Beyond any real or imagined rivalry, the teams bus across much of central and south Florida on their spring training schedules -- the Nationals with 34 games and the Orioles 31.

The Nats' last preseason game will be April 3 at RFK Stadium in Washington -- a tuneup for the ballpark before the home opener April 4 against Philadelphia.

The Birds fly out of Florida for the last three: two in Oklahoma City against the St. Louis Cardinals, and an April 3 tuneup in Philadelphia against the Phillies the day before the Oriole Park home opener against Oakland.

The Orioles play 14 games in Fort Lauderdale, and Florida road games in Jupiter, Vero Beach, Port St. Lucie and Fort Myers, in addition to Viera. Tickets will be available for most games, but likely sold out -- and scalped -- for the four scheduled with the World Series champion Boston Red Sox (March 14 and March 24 at Fort Lauderdale, and March 19 and March 23 at Fort Myers).

For the traveler heading to Florida, spring training is an opportunity to personally scout out the hometown team -- and there are 18 Major League Baseball squads to choose from across the Sunshine State, depending on where you call home.

But it's not always the team that matters most.

Take, for example, the view of spring training from fan Pam Arnold, who lives in the Southern Maryland community of California: "It's all about Surhoff."

For six years, Arnold, a forty-something medical technologist, has been taking spring training vacations with her husband, and usually waving signs expressing her sentiments about Oriole outfielder B.J. Surhoff. In 2003, her sign read, "Took a week off to see Surhoff." Last year's sign said, "Took another week off to see Surhoff."

"I have the world's largest collection of Surhoff stuff," she declared last year, during a game at Fort Lauderdale Stadium.

Arnold acknowledged that Surhoff was in the twilight of his playing career, and said she had Orioles Luis Matos and Brian Roberts as younger alternatives to root for. But B.J. will be back, at least this spring.

Arnold is planning her annual trip, wondering whether to lug along another sign.

She said she considered a large Monopoly-style "Get Out of Jail Free" card to wave at pitcher Sidney Ponson, whose off-season behavior found him in a scuffle on a beach and jailed in his native Aruba. "My husband said that's poor taste," Arnold said of the proposed sign.

Pam and her husband, David Arnold, stay at the Marriott TownePlace Suites during their weeklong trips to spring training -- a hotel less than 3 miles from the ballpark that offers an "Orioles fantastic fan rate."

The Arnolds have paid a little over $800 for the week in a two-bedroom suite, allowing them and another couple to share expenses.

Among their favorite restaurants, she noted, is the Aruba Beach Cafe -- but not that Aruba beach. It is about five miles east of Fort Lauderdale Stadium, just off the beach in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea.

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