Covering the bases

Heading to Fort Lauderdale for Orioles spring training? Here are a few ideas to make your trip a home run


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Snowbirds, the winter-only residents of Florida, have been here for several months.

This month, however, a whole new flock makes the trip south. Not to escape winter, but to put a rush on spring -- by taking in the boys of summer.

Eighteen Major League Baseball teams have spring training sites in Florida (the other 12 are in Arizona), including the Orioles. Unlike many of the other Florida-based camps, which are in quiet outposts, the Orioles train in Fort Lauderdale, one of the more happening locales in the Sunshine State.

So if you can't wait until opening day, April 3, to see whether Miguel Tejada is content, Brian Roberts is healthy and Anna Benson (the high-profile wife of Orioles starting pitcher Kris Benson) is tan, then this is the place to be.

But consider yourself warned: Unless you fancy driving up and down Interstate 95 in stop-and-go traffic every other day during a week's vacation, you might want to plan other things to do besides watching Grapefruit League games.

The downside of playing in Fort Lauderdale is that only one other training complex, Jupiter's Roger Dean Stadium, which houses the St. Louis Cardinals and Florida Marlins, is within an hour's drive. Everything else is a haul (the rival Boston Red Sox, for instance, play 140 miles away in Fort Myers).

So when the Orioles are on the road, which typically happens three or four times each week, fans might be better off taking in the sights around this seaside city. There are plenty of places that can make you feel closer to home, without the threat of snow.

Here's a primer for the traveling O's fan:

If you love Camden Yards, then ... well, frankly, you'll miss it. Fort Lauderdale Stadium is the second-oldest stadium in the Grapefruit League, and it shows. It has the Orioles, without any of the modern convenience of Oriole Park.

But it is cheaper to attend games here - from $8 to $18 with discounts for kids and seniors - and tickets are usually available on game day. If you want some interaction with players, then sit along the right-field line near the Orioles bullpen.

And if you want some Florida sun, it's tough to beat the bleachers in right field.

If you love getting autographs, then you will adore spring training. The players are more accessible and the rules are more relaxed. Some players, especially pitchers who have already thrown, might sign between innings.

The best place to get autographs, though, is at the entrance of the players' parking lot before and after games. Players must report at 9 a.m. for a 1:05 p.m. game and most get in between 7:30 a.m. and 8:45 a.m.

They'll sign from their cars if you are polite and orderly. Some fans get there as early as 6 a.m. to guarantee a spot right at the gate.

If you love to hang out at Pickles Pub or other nearby sports bars after games in Baltimore, your best bet during spring training is Champps Americana, about a mile east of the stadium in Cypress Creek Station.

Yes, it is a chain. Also, it is cavernous, so you lose that intimate, friendly sports-argument feel. But the place has several huge TV projection screens, and the staff is willing to accommodate fans' requests within reason.

That means plenty of University of Maryland basketball games have been shown there over the years. Don't be surprised if you run into some Orioles watching the NCAA basketball tournament, because it is right around the corner from the team hotel. And don't pass up a chance at the Cobb salad, which is practically served in a trough.

For a more gritty, blue-collar place to shoot pool or play darts, try Jester's or Cheers, both on Cypress Creek Road, also east of Fort Lauderdale Stadium, or the Circus Bar & Grill, just north of the stadium in Pompano Beach.

If you love steamed crabs, the official Orioles' spring training crab shack is Riggins Crabhouse, about a 40-minute drive up I-95 in Lantana, Fla. Some snowbirds believe Riggins' crabs are better than - gasp - places in Baltimore.

The blue crabs are steamed in vinegar and beer and seasoned with Old Bay. Riggins also sponsors a "crabby fan of the game" promotion at each home game in which a randomly selected fan gets a T-shirt and gift certificate. Prices for steamed crabs range from $39 per dozen (medium) to $51 per dozen (large). Jumbos ($6) and colossals ($7) are sold per crab.

If you want a crab dinner South Florida-style, head south to Miami Beach and the legendary Joe's Stone Crab. Joe's does the claw delicacy - lots of meat, less work than Maryland crabs - like no other. But it doesn't accept reservations, so get there early or plan on waiting.

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