|The Dodgers field at Vero Beach|
| Source: Elderhostel, SportsWorld Tours, and Sping Training Tours|
NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Every January, when northern skies darken, the thoughts of red-blooded Americans start turning to the National Pastime.
These fans crave not just the excitement of the regular baseball season, but also the slower paced, more pastoral environment: spring training.
"It's a small town kind of feel," says Eric Pastore, a musician from Staten Island who, along with his wife Wendy, is on a quest to photograph every professional baseball field in the world. They've amassed about 300 photos in the past four years and Eric believes they have about 1,200 to go. (See the pictures at their Web site www.digitalballparks.com.)
Pastore points out that the stands at a field like the Dodgers use in Vero Beach are only seven or eight rows deep. "You're a lot closer to the field," he says. "The players are more amicable. They're glad to be back playing and they're very receptive to the fans."
Attending spring training games has become increasingly popular. When, last week, the New York Yankees put tickets on sale for all 15 spring-training home games, they sold out in just three hours.
In 2004, 3.3 million fans attended games. That's an average of 7,169 a game, according to Major League Baseball, an increase of 12.7 percent over 2003. (For a peak at the economic impact of spring training, see The delusions of spring.)
Easier to go
Several organizations offer spring training package deals and tours.
One of these is Elderhostel, the non-profit organization that provides learning experiences for those over 55 years old. Elderhostel has offered baseball spring training experiences for about 10 years and fans can choose from 10 different trips, five each to Arizona and Florida.
Cheryl Gold is the director of the Elderhostel program at Eckerd College, a private liberal arts school in St. Petersburg, Florida, and Annie Miller runs the baseball program there. They schedule lectures, museum tours, stadium tours, conferences, as well as three baseball games a week for 80 to 100 elderhostlers each year.
Baseball and seniors have a natural affinity. Most seniors grew up in a time when baseball was the undisputed number one sport in America.
"Their love of baseball started when they were really young and they still associate it with good memories," says Gold.
The spring training experience is more like the baseball they grew up with. "Real grass, small fields," says Miller. "It's really exciting."
Meet and greet
A large part of the charm of spring training is the proximity to the players. Vets are more likely to interact with the fans, sign autographs and such. During pre-game practices you can hear the instructions the coaches call out as they teach the finer details of the game.
"I remember the workouts better than the games," says Doug Geller, an upstate New York resident, who used to go see the Yankees play spring training games in Fort Lauderdale.
Bill O'Connor, director of continuing education at Stetson University in DeLand Florida, says sometimes the closeness can be overdone.
"One year when the Indians were good we had about 50 elderhostelers sign up for a program that went to the Indians' training camp," he says. "They stayed at the same motel as the Indians and some would go around knocking on players' doors at night. I had to say, 'People, you can't do that.'"
The Dodgers have been especially accommodating. "They even let the elderhostelers sit on the bench during practice and players come over to talk," says O'Connor.
The Elderhostel programs include accommodation, game tickets, and ground transportation, and last for five days to a week. They cost between $565 and $699, double occupancy, meals, and transportation. They often include such extras as lectures by baseball experts, meetings with retired ballplayers, and looks at archival film footage.
"We even take them out on the college field and the Eckerd coach, Bill Mathews, pitches batting practice for them," says Miller. "It's really fun to see them out there hitting. One woman last year was nearly 90."
A few years ago they even played real games, but Miller rethought that policy. "There were 75-year-olds sliding into second base," she says.
Another organization, Spring Training Tours, which started as the Oakland A's official spring training booking company, now books trips for 12 other teams as well.
They have a variety of packages that can run from two to seven nights and can include a welcome reception with club personnel and a "chalk talk" or season preview with a manager or coach. They start at about $500 for a two-night program, including airfare.
It's not too early to start planning; spring training begins with pitchers and catchers reporting to most teams shortly after the middle of February; games start about March 2.