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Spring Training on a budget

Rising prices make bargains tougher to find

Posted: Friday February 25, 2005 1:46PM; Updated: Friday February 25, 2005 5:37PM
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The words "Spring Training" used to evoke images of small, intimate stadiums and an easy way for fans to interact with major leaguers. Not anymore. Take a look around Florida and Arizona and you'll find brand-new, two-tiered ballparks, high-priced concessions and security that makes O'Hare Airport look like a 7-Eleven. And the worst part of it all? The skyrocketing ticket prices.

Nowhere is this more emblematic than with the defending World Series champs: The Boston Red Sox added 300 "premium seats" at City of Palms Park in Fort Myers, Fla., that cost up to $44 per ticket. (That's $8 more than the best seats in the house at Oakland's McAfee Coliseum -- a major-league park.) Not exactly chump change if you come to Florida expecting to see guys named Manny, Johnny and Ortiz, but end up seeing more of guys named Hanley, Anibal and Hyzdu once the stars are pulled after four innings. But demand is so high that the Sox, like many teams, sold out their entire spring schedule within minutes of putting tickets on sale. Tickets are going for as much as $125 on eBay, and up to $295 a pop from scalpers. What's going on?

"What's happened is that teams have latched onto the notion that Spring Training can be a big revenue producer," says NBC Sports' Bob Costas, who perhaps knows this better than anyone else. When Fox outbid NBC to broadcast Major League Baseball in 1995, Costas found himself off daily baseball coverage -- he had been attending Spring Training for its entire duration since the 1980s, where he took part in the rituals, basked in the sun at tiny stadiums and ate at the classic baseball hangouts.

But the good news is that the Spring Training experience of old isn't dead. There are places all over Florida and Arizona where you can do up baseball like it's yesteryear without coughing up an arm and a leg. Here is SI.com's guide to Spring Training on the cheap: stadiums, restaurants and tourist attractions that will be highlights of your pilgrimage down south without sending you to the poorhouse.

Grapefruit League

STADIUMS

Dodgertown
Dodgertown offers cheap prices and easy access to players.
Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images

Holman Stadium, Vero Beach (Dodgers)
If you're looking for the epitome of a classic Spring Training experience, Dodgertown is it. Tickets are cheap, ranging from $8-$18 (games rarely sell out), but that's just icing on the cake. Dodgertown is baseball's oldest spring complex and has changed very little since it opened in 1948, Jackie Robinson's second season. There's not a bad seat in the house, and there are no dugouts either -- a chain-link fence separates the stands from the benches, so you can see the players at all times. Access is unmatched, as every player has to walk through the same areas fans do. There are six practice fields to stroll around, and the place is teeming with history -- you might even run into Sandy Koufax, who makes the short drive from his Vero Beach home almost every spring to work with Dodger pitchers.

City of Palms Park, Fort Myers (Red Sox)
OK, we mentioned the entire Sox schedule has been sold out for weeks. But the day of every game, the stadium makes a handful of standing-room only seats available for $10. The only catch is that it isn't a secret -- you have to arrive early in the morning to beat the crowds. The good news is many fans leave in the later innings when the major leaguers are pulled, so odds are good you can land yourself a seat if you can descend faster than a vulture. Of course, this is the first season in 86 years the team has been able to call itself "Defending World Champions," so all bets are off.

Joker Marchant Stadium, Lakeland (Tigers)
First of all, this park has a great name (Marchant was Lakeland's popular director of public works and recreation when the stadium was built in the '60s). But it happens to be one of the best-looking parks in the Grapefruit League. It's also one of nine stadiums with "berm" seating, often your cheapest option for tickets. Berms are the grassy sections -- usually beyond the outfield walls -- where you can bring a blanket and sit. Joker Marchant happens to have one of the best (and biggest) berms in the league, and a seat there costs only $9.

RESTAURANTS

Starlite Diner, Fort Lauderdale
6201 N. Andrews Ave.
starlitediner.com
This eatery, one of a chain of '50s-style diners, is heavy on the kitsch. But it's light on the wallet, serves good comfort food and is open 24 hours a day. Situated a mile from Fort Lauderdale Stadium, where the Orioles play, it's conveniently located. (Two of the chain's locations, incidentally, are not: They're in Moscow. As in Russia.) Bonus thrifty tip: If you're traveling with a senior citizen, you can often get coupons from the ballpark.

Stevie Tomato's Sportspage, Fort Myers
11491 S. Cleveland Ave.
If you can't make it inside a Sox game (or into a nearby Twins game, for that matter), the next-best thing is to make it to this local sports bar to watch on one of its 60 TVs. There's also a game room for the kids, as well as pool tables. The menu is standard bar fare at inexpensive prices -- pretty much everything is less than $10, and burgers are half off on Mondays, pizzas half off on Tuesdays. Beer is half off on weekdays between 3 and 7 p.m.

Sunset Cafe, Vero Beach
760 S. U.S. Hwy. 1
Head here for casual, cheap breakfast or lunch. This small joint serves up good gourmet sandwiches and a mean French dip. You can easily clock in a breakfast for under $4 and lunch for around $5. And it's a quick 10-minute drive to Dodgertown.

THINGS TO DO

Edison and Ford Winter Estates, Fort Myers
2350 McGregor Blvd.
edison-ford-estate.com
The winter homes of inventor Thomas Edison and auto pioneer Henry Ford are open to the public and offer insights into the lives of two of the most influential industrialists in American history. The pair were good friends and neighbors in the early 1900s. The property is close to the Red Sox' and Twins' stadiums. A family ticket (two adults and two kids) for a one-time tour is $40.

Mote Marine Laboratory, Sarasota
1600 Ken Thompson Pkwy.
mote.org
This independent research facility is also an aquarium and animal-rehabilitation center, and it's great for kids. It's located on City Island across Sarasota Bay, about 15 minutes from the Reds' Ed Smith Stadium. Mote's most famous residents are two 3,000-pound manatees named Hugh and Buffett. Adults admission is $12, kids $8.

Salvador Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg
1000 3rd St. South
salvadordalimuseum.org
Sure, the temporary exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is earning rave reviews. But it's cold in Philly. This expansive museum houses the largest collection of the surrealist's work outside of his native Spain -- and it's within easy distance of six Grapefruit League stadiums. Adults get in for $14, students $9, kids $3.50.

For more info, I recommend you pick up the excellent Florida Spring Training: Your Guide to Touring the Grapefruit League. Its author, Alan Byrd, approaches the Grapefruit League with a similar goal in mind: experiencing the best of Spring Training without breaking the bank.

Click below for the Cactus League.

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