Pitchers and Catchers report – it’s a phrase that means nothing to some, and everything to others. Every die-hard baseball fan knows that the day pitchers and catchers report to their respective teams’ training camps signals the unofficial end of winter and the beginning of a new season. In other words, baseball’s back! Many a fan has made visiting their favorite team’s spring site an annual vacation tradition. For others, it’s a dream not yet fulfilled. Seamheads – read on. This is your spring guide to luxury travel with a side of baseball. Or the other way around.
Spring baseball is one of America’s oldest traditions. Popularized in the 1890s, Spring Training is Major League Baseball’s exhibition season, running from mid-February (with workouts for two weeks before games start) through the end of March right up to the season’s Opening Day. For teams, these six weeks are built for preparing its regular players for the upcoming season, while also giving coaches and management the chance to evaluate younger players that may or may not make the big club for the upcoming season. The 30 teams are split into two leagues – unrelated to the regular season’s American and National leagues – and stationed in one of two warm-weather climates for the duration of camp. Fifteen teams play in the Grapefruit League, based in South Florida, while the other 15 play in the Cactus League in central Arizona.
Spring Training’s cheap ticket prices, warm climates, and concurrence with school spring break make both Florida and Arizona popular March vacation destinations for baseball fans and families. The proximity of the teams’ ballparks – some even share stadiums – makes it easy to watch several different teams during a trip. The atmosphere is relaxed during the spring, and the game isn’t always the center of attention. Players are more relaxed, interacting with fans and signing autographs for kids far more casually and frequently than they would during the regular season – even at times during the game. And look out for unique traditions like players jogging in the outfield while the play is happening in front of them!
If your idea of a vacation is watching baseball every day, with easy access to baseball’s biggest stars, and private luxurious homes to retreat to after the final out, here’s how to make the most out of your Spring Training visit.
Grapefruit League, Florida
Start your journey by settling into a luxurious rental home in Miami. Staying in the bustling culture capital of Florida, you’ll be close to some of America’s best nightlife, fine dining, and beaches. You’re also close to the baseball action in West Palm Beach, roughly a 90-minute drive up the I-95. Teams that share ballparks typically alternate hosting games daily or every two days, so if you schedule it properly, you can see more games and more teams with less travel. First, take in a Houston Astros or Washington Nationals game at 2017-built, state-of-the-art The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. Then, drive less than half an hour north to Jupiter to see the St. Louis Cardinals or Miami Marlins at their cozy, minor league style home, Roger Dean Stadium. Two games in one day – that’s the beauty of Spring Training.
After spending a few days and nights around Miami, a longer travel day is in order. The drive from Miami up to Orlando should take about three and a half hours, but thankfully, you can make a stop in Port St. Lucie to see the New York Mets along the way. This year in particular, the Mets are a can’t-miss team, as their spring roster includes former college football star and NFL quarterback, Tim Tebow, trying to transition from the gridiron to professional baseball.
If you’re traveling with the kids – and even if you’re not – you should spend a few days exploring the magic of Disney World. The close-by community of Reunion is a great place to stay for its proximity to Spring Training sites and Disney Parks. Staying so close to Disney, you shouldn’t be surprised to find some of your kids’ favorite characters on the walls of the bedrooms in rental homes here. You’ll want to consult the kids when deciding between a villa with a Harry Potter-themed bedroom, a Mickey Mouse bedroom, and a Star Wars game room. Just 20 minutes away, the Atlanta Braves play at Champion Stadium at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in the Walt Disney World Resort. The Braves’ farm system (minor league players) was ranked 2017’s best, so you’re sure to see some future stars. And just 45 miles southwest in Lakeland, you’ll find Tigertown, spring home of the Detroit Tigers. Joker Marchant Stadium is a charming, old-fashioned ballpark situated on an old Army pilot training site, and it boasts some of the best ballpark food around. The Tigers’ late owner, Mike Ilitch, was the founder of the Little Caesars Pizza chain, so you know you’ll get a top quality slice for lunch.
Your final accommodations will be in Naples. Thankfully, you can turn this drive into another day trip with stadium stops along the way. If you can make it over to the Tampa Bay area, you’ll want to visit several team sites, whether for a game or not. The New York Yankees train at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, while just across the bay, the Toronto Blue Jays are stationed in Dunedin and the Philadelphia Phillies in Clearwater, where Spectrum Field is arguably the finest ball park in the Grapefruit League. The concessions are on point with some local (Philadelphia) classics like cheesesteak and roast pork sandwiches, while you can observe the action from the berm, a raised grassy bank beyond the outfield fence that’s a staple of so many Spring Training ballparks.
Further south, between the I-75 and the Gulf of Mexico, you’ll pass through Bradenton (Pittsburgh Pirates) and Sarasota (Baltimore Orioles) on your way to Port Charlotte (Tampa Bay Rays) and finally, Fort Myers. Less than an hour north of Naples, Fort Myers is home to the Minnesota Twins and the Boston Red Sox. You have to take in a game at jetBlue Park, essentially Fenway Park South, which adapts many of Boston’s century-old ballpark’s hallmarks: the towering Green Monster in left field and the infamous Pesky’s Pole in right field. Sox fans are some of the spring’s most passionate and willing to travel, so New Englanders will feel right at home.
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Cactus League, Arizona
Whereas the Grapefruit League’s teams are spread throughout the southern portion of Florida, the Cactus League occupies a much smaller zone within the Phoenix Metropolitan Area. You’re best to fly into Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and rent a car. With far less distance to travel (no drives longer than an hour!) you can spend even more of your time at the ballpark. With accommodations close by, it may be possible to visit every single Cactus League park in just a couple of weeks.
If Fort Myers has Fenway Park South, then Mesa, Arizona has Wrigley Field West. Sloan Park, opened in 2014, was built to resemble the Cubs’ historic Chicago home, from the faux rooftop seating made to mimic Sheffield and Waveland Avenues to the brick backstop behind home plate. This year, for the first time since the memorable spring of 1909, you’ll be able to see the world champion Chicago Cubs. (That still doesn’t sound right!)
Arizona isn’t a tough journey if you’re coming from California, hence all five of the Golden State’s MLB teams train there. Three of them surround the Cubs, starting with the Oakland Athletics, who share Mesa (but have their own stadium). Hohokam Stadium once housed the Cubs too, but now the A’s are the sole tenant. Warning: If you go, eat first. Some say Hohokam’s lack of gastronomic creativity make its food the worst among Arizona’s 11 spring ballparks.
The league’s best food may be found up in Peoria, where the Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres share Peoria Sports Complex. At PSC, you have the pick of the litter: gyros and burritos at The Power Alley, fish tacos at Taste of the Cactus League, and hot dogs and PB&J for kids at a concession stand near the complex’s wiffle ball field down the first base line, where kids under 12 can drop in for free and play ball.
One of the best ballparks on the Cactus League circuit has to be Scottsdale Stadium, where the San Francisco Giants play. Just three blocks away is Old Town Scottsdale, where on a Saturday you can spend the day taking a free horse-drawn trolley ride before being serenaded by an Old West cowboy. The stadium itself is a great place to watch baseball – it has a game-day atmosphere that’s tough to beat, and a view of Camelback Mountain from your seat.
Just north of downtown Scottsdale, the Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks share what may be the best spring complex in all of baseball: Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. Set on Native American land, it’s a dream for the die-hard baseball fan. With easy accessibility to the practice fields from the parking lot, watching BP (batting practice) and PFP (pitcher’s fielding practice) is easy, if that’s your thing. A classic Spring Training venue, Salt River has everything you would imagine and more: a vast lawn in both left and right field, free suntan lotion dispensers (it is Arizona!), lower bowl seats with lots of legroom, and great mountain views.
Within the Scottsdale region, a brief 15-minute drive north from Talking Stick, Paradise Valley has luxury retreats in the mountains that you can book just for you, so you can live the authentic sun valley experience with all the privacy of your own home and special services normally reserved for royalty. Our three Phoenix-area villas are just a few minutes away, and offer unmatched mountain views. If you prefer to be even further away from the action, the Rocks Club complex, tucked within a canyon near Scottsdale, might be perfect for your party.
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You can’t go wrong with Florida’s Grapefruit League or Arizona’s Cactus League. Both offer a unique fan experience unmatched by any other sport. Spring Training is a big part of what makes baseball special, and while we hate to see it end, we love that when it does, it means Opening Day is here and it’s finally time to play ball.