Rites Of Spring Head south during the preseason for the ultimate baseball pilgrimage
(MONEY Magazine) – The national pastime is officially back. Baseball took on new life last October, when the no-name Florida Marlins won the World Series on ground no less hallowed than Yankee Stadium, and the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox--two of the sport's most storied but hapless teams--came within a few outs of the Fall Classic. If that electricity carried you through the winter, the time is now to get a jump on the 2004 baseball season. March is when players from all 30 major league teams descend upon Florida and Arizona to begin spring training. The reasons to join them are plentiful: warm weather, cheap tickets, small stadiums and extraordinary access to players. So we drew up three itineraries designed to make the most of your spring-training vacation. For more information on any spring-training venue, go to mlb.com for links to each team's home page.
DODGERTOWN (three days) If you've only got a weekend to experience spring training, your one stop should be Vero Beach, Fla., the spring home of the Los Angeles Dodgers, says Alan Byrd, author of Florida Spring Training: Your Guide to Touring the Grapefruit League. The sprawling 60-acre facility was built in 1948 (when the Dodgers still called Brooklyn home) and transports visitors back to that era. Players happily oblige autograph requests, and the practice fields are open before games, allowing you to get close enough to hear their conversations. Adding to the intimacy is that there are no dugouts at Dodgertown's Holman Stadium--a chain-link fence is the only thing separating fans from the players--and many seats are close enough to the press box to hear legendary Dodger broadcaster Vin Scully call the game live. There's not a bad seat in the house, and the tickets are easy to come by even on game day ($15 for all seats; 772-569-6858; dodgers.com). Target Friday, March 26, and Sunday the 28th to catch games against the beefed-up Baltimore Orioles and the always-exciting St. Louis Cardinals.
THE CACTUS LEAGUE (five days) The Cactus League comprises 12 teams based within a two-hour drive of Phoenix or Tucson, making it easy to see several teams. Book a five-night San Francisco Giants package from Spring Training Tours (800-892-7687; springtrainingtours.com) that includes accommodations at Comfort Suites Scottsdale, car rental with unlimited mileage, tickets to four games, an autograph session with players and even a barbecue with Giants manager Felipe Alou for $818 per person, double occupancy (add $257 per child at any hotel). Choose March 18-23 and you'll attend games at two of the league's top spots--the Giants' Scottsdale Stadium and monstrous HoHoKam Park in Mesa, where raucous Chicagoans turn out in hordes to cheer on the Cubs. On your free day, you can catch the Arizona Diamondbacks/Seattle Mariners game at Tucson Electric Park, where the view of the Santa Catalina Mountains past the outfield walls is unbeatable (tickets $3 to $16; 866-672-1343; azdiamondbacks.com).
THE GRAPEFRUIT LEAGUE (one week) Six of Florida's 18 Grapefruit League teams play in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area. Mark the week of March 21 on your calendar because you can see games at five of the best parks, all without switching hotels. Start at Legends Field, spring home of the New York Yankees, where the atmosphere may not be intimate, but it is impressive--the stadium seats 10,387,while the field itself has the exact dimensions of Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. Advance tickets are sold out, but day-of tickets go on sale a few hours before each game--and they'll be easier to get for Sunday's game against the lowly Tampa Bay Devil Rays ($12 to $18; 813-879-2244; yankees.com). On Tuesday make a quick visit to Canada, eh? The Toronto Blue Jays play at Dunedin Stadium, an autograph seeker's dream and the only spring-training park where you can get a Labatt beer (tickets $13 to $18, beer $3.50 to $4.50; 800-707-8269; bluejays.com). On Thursday see the Yanks visit the Philadelphia Phillies' brand-new Clearwater Community Sports Complex ($8 to $18; 727-442-8496; phillies.com), then watch the rival Red Sox play the Pittsburgh Pirates at cozy McKechnie Field in Bradenton on Friday ($6 to $11; 800-955-5566; pittsburghpirates.com). End the baseball week at gorgeous Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, when the Dodgers visit the Detroit Tigers. If you buy "outfield berm" tickets for admission to the grassy knoll beyond left field and show up early for batting practice, odds are good that you'll catch your own souvenir (berm tickets $7; 863-682-5300; detroittigers.com).
If you need a break from baseball, use a day off to check out the Salvador Dalí Museum in downtown St. Petersburg (727-823-3767; salvadordalimuseum.org). Currently celebrating what would be the Spanish surrealist's 100th birthday, it houses the largest collection of Dalí's work outside of Spain. Who knows, maybe you'll see an art-loving ballplayer while you're there.