Sarasota is diamond destination for Orioles fans

Here are 10 things you need to know

March 02, 2013|By Charlie Vascellaro, For The Baltimore Sun

For Baltimore baseball fans inspired by the Orioles' surprising success last year, spring training couldn't have come soon enough. Those who never wanted that magic season to end along with newbie Birds fans are already flocking in droves to the team's Grapefruit League home at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota.

I had some genuine Smalltimore moments during the first two days of a recent five-day visit to the Gulf Coast of Florida, where the Orioles roost from February to the end of March.

After a 5-1 victory over the Yankees on Monday — a third straight win to start the spring season — I headed to O'Leary's Tiki Bar & Grill in Sarasota's Bayfront Park.

Taking a seat at the square bar under a thatched roof overlooking the bay, I sidled up next to a guy with a Buck Showalter T-shirt. He turned out to be Cal Miller, a 60-something rabid Orioles fan from Baltimore and a friend of Greg Schwalenberg, a good buddy of mine who is curator of the Babe Ruth Museum by day and beer vendor at Oriole Park by night.

Miller and I quickly sparked a lively conversation over a couple of beers while watching the sun set over the water. We were in good company — seated near us were a man and woman, both wearing Buck Showalter T-shirts. As they got up to leave, the man introduced his wife as Mrs. Showalter.

I had arrived in Sarasota one day earlier, flying into Tampa International Airport early enough to pick up my rental car and make the short drive to Dunedin, Fla., in time for the Orioles' game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Auto Exchange Stadium. I missed an exit and took one wrong turn, arriving a little bit late but just in time to see Orioles reserve outfielder Steve Pearce jack a two-run homer off Blue Jays pitcher Mark Buehrle in the top of the second inning.

If you go to Sarasota to see the O's this spring here are 10 things you'll want to know.

1. Ed Smith Stadium The Orioles play their Grapefruit League home games at the recently remodeled Ed Smith Stadium, where the team set franchise records for spring training attendance in each of the last two seasons. The ballpark is a bright white and orange with different versions of the Oriole Bird logo hanging all over the place. Even the concession stands make you feel at home. Last year, my girlfriend bought us a couple of soft-shell crab sandwiches and the guy at the counter wanted to make sure we knew what they were. When she dropped one of them on the ground trying to get to her seat, a collective groan went up through our entire section. A 2012 Wild Card Pennant flag was added this year to the championship chandelier that hangs in the ballpark's main entrance lobby.

2. Buck O'Neil Baseball Complex Located 10 miles from Ed Smith Stadium, the complex at Twin Lakes Park is the Orioles longtime minor league facility. The pastoral cloverleaf of practice fields provides a tranquil backdrop for the hard work of spring training. If you get there early in the morning before games, you'll be able to see members of the Orioles' expanded spring training roster and minor leaguers running through drills and working on the fundamentals of the game. Six larger-than-life photos of Orioles Hall of Famers, including former manager Earl Weaver, adorn the complex's main building. An oversized three-card set of Negro Leagues legend and Sarasota native Buck O'Neil, created by MICA graduate artist Gary Cieradkowski, decorates the observation deck at the center of the practice fields.

3. Two halves of the Grapefruit League Half of Major League Baseball's 30 teams play in the Grapefruit League on Florida's east and west coasts. The Orioles' coastal neighbors include the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Philadelphia Phillies, Minnesota Twins, Toronto Blue Jays, Pittsburgh Pirates and Tampa Bay Rays. Florida's East Coast Grapefruit League includes the Detroit Tigers, Houston Astros, Atlanta Braves, Washington Nationals, New York Mets, St. Louis Cardinals, and Florida Marlins.

4. Packed schedule In all, the Orioles are scheduled to play 33 spring training games (17 at home and 16 on the road), as well as exhibition games against Team Spain of this year's World Baseball Classic, on March 6, and the State College of Florida squad on March 29. The Orioles conclude the spring season at home against the New York Mets on March 30.

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