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Baseball outside the camps: Filling your days at spring training

Alfond Stadium

You have your spring-training game schedule set. You have reservations to your favorite spring-training restaurants. But, despite all this planning, there are a few gaps in your schedule. You want more baseball: one game a day isn’t enough. We’re here to help fill that spring-training schedule.

There’s a ton of baseball being played in Florida and, to a much lesser degree, in Arizona when the major leaguers train. If you’re not fussy about the level of play and the creature comforts, you can pretty much fill every day on a Florida or Arizona trip with plenty of baseball, mostly of the college sort. In particular, Florida is a mecca for college baseball, with major programs in Orlando and Tampa. In addition, there are hundreds of other college games being played throughout the state, particularly in the state’s strawberry belt between Orlando and Tampa.

Jay Bergman Field

In Tampa, two major colleges are worth a visit. The University of Central Florida Knights play at Jay Bergman Field, a lovely little facility in the middle of campus. (It’s shown above.) It’s been renovated and expanded a few times, now seating about 3,600 after the addition of a second level down the first-base line (we hesitate in calling it a second deck, as some do). Jay Bergman Field is in the middle of the athletic complex at UCF and includes a large scoreboard as well as one of the best-regarded playing surfaces in college baseball. The Golden Knights draw well in a ballpark that’s been renovated a few times, so don’t be surprised if the seating is a little crammed for some big games. And do plan ahead: the UCF campus is across town from Disney World and the Wide World of Sports, spanning several toll booths along the freeway and an ungodly long commercial stretch before you hit campus. The UCF’s main address is 4000 Central Florida Blvd., Orlando. When you arrive, follow signs to the football stadium or arena; the ballpark is located between those two facilities.

Also northeast of downtown Orlando: Winter Park’s Alfond Stadium, home of the Rollins College Tars of the very competitive Sunshine State Conference. (It’s the ballpark at the top of the story.) Though Alfond Stadium at Harper-Shepherd Field officially re-opened with a freshly erected bleachers and grandstand on March 8, 1983, its land had been used as a baseball field by the Division II Tars since 1933 — complete with rickety bleachers and modest facilities — and by the local baseball partisans of Winter Park since 1926. That initial game in 1983 saw Rollins College host the Pittsburgh Pirates, four years removed from a World Series title, who would go on to finish second in the National League East.

A tar, by the way, is a nickname for a sailor. Perhaps ironic for landlocked Winter Park.

The ballpark is worth a drive if you’re in Orlando for spring training or other tourism. The focus is on baseball — a small concession stand sells hot dogs and snacks — and the raised grandstand will give you a good view of the action. Winter Park is one of those lovely Florida communities that’s kept its charm, and downtown is full of many great restaurants and bars, many within a close walk of the ballpark. 801 N. Orange Av., Winter Park. There is limited parking in the adjoining parking lot.

Farther out is Sanford Stadium, the site where the Boston Braves trained for a single season and the former home to New York Giants spring training. The 1951 ballpark is a beaut: it’s been well maintained over the years. It’s home to local Babe Ruth and high-school baseball, as well as summer-collegiate ball. In February and March, your best bet is attending a high-school game. Be warned: the place is locked up tight when there’s no game on hand, and it’s quite a haul from the House of Mouse.

Alas, there’s no baseball this spring at Tinker Field, the former longtime spring home of the Washington Nationals/Minnesota Twins: work at the Citrus Bowl means the field is unavailable for play. Orlando elected officials are debating the future of the venerable ballpark, which opened in 1923 and renovated in 1963.

However, there’s plenty of other baseball in the I-4 corridor between Orlando and Tampa. RussMatt is a major player in the tournament world, scheduling literally hundreds of games over the course of February and March in central Florida and the greater Tampa Bay area. Of course, you don’t really care when Winona State University or St. Norbert are playing (apologies to both), you care about seeing some baseball in a nice environment.

RussMatt runs out of many venues in Central Florida, but three are of note. Red Sox and Indians fans will note the many games at Chain of Lakes Park and nearby practice fields in Winter Haven. The city has sought an alternative use for the old spring-training facility, but so far there’s not been a workable alternative, so it’s heavily used by college players. Good news for you; bad news for developers. The main ballpark still retains a lot of charm. 210 Cypress Gardens Blvd., Winter Haven.

Also worth the drive: Pat Thomas Stadium, located northeast of Orlando in the scenic little town of Leesburg. Pat Thomas Stadium is next to the waterfront (the city marina is next door) and the little ballpark, which once hosted Philadelphia Phillies minor-league spring training, is a throwback to a more leisurely era. RussMatt runs games out of there. 240 Ball Park Rd, Leesburg.

RussMatt also runs some games out of Henley Field, former spring training home of the Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers, but the real draw here is the Florida Southern College Mocs baseball team. Detroit fans will recognize the name: the Mocs and the Tigers still play an annual exhibition game. Henley Field dates back to 1925 and was built as a spring home for the Cleveland Indians, but the ballpark is better known as the former spring home of the Detroit Tigers before Tiger Town existed. The grandstand was renovated in 2002 when the Tigers trained there while Joker Marchant Stadium was renovated. Still, the place is authentically old and has the retro feel other colleges and minor-league teams pay millions to emulate. If you have time after or before a game, drive over to the Florida Southern campus: it’s the largest set of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings still standing. 1125 N. Florida Av., Lakeland.

University of Tampa

In Tampa, three venues provide baseball outside spring training. The University of Tampa Spartans, part of the aforementioned Sunshine State Conference, plays at a small (600-capacity) ballpark on campus near the edge of downtown Tampa, which means the downtown skyline is beyond the outfield fence as you watch one of the best NCAA II programs out there. (Lou Piniella and Tino Martinez are both alums.) Most Spartans home games are at night, which means you can watch the Yankees, Blue Jays or Phillies in the day and catch a second game at night. If you go, head over early: the college campus is a former landmark hotel next to where a former spring-training site, Plant Field, was located. Reportedly Babe Ruth hit the longest home run in his illustrious career there; a plaque marks the site in front of the current business school. The ballpark is the corner of West Cass St. and North Boulevard west of downtown Tampa.

Team Canada is training at venerable Al Lang Field this spring, with games scheduled for March 10-16. Al Lang Field is the longtime home to spring training in downtown St. Petersburg: most recently the Tampa Bay Rays played spring games there, but the Cards, Yankees, Giants, and Mets all trained there over the tears. True, the most recent version of the ballpark is a big pile of concrete lacking the charm of previous versions, but it’s still worth a visit if you’re in the area. Most of the Team Canada games are against minor leaguers training in the area, but Blue Jays major leaguers are set to take on Team Canada on March 11 to celebrate Canada Day. For a full schedule and more information check out the St. Petersburg International Baseball website. 180 2nd Av. SE., St. Petersburg.

The University of South Florida Bulls play at USF Baseball Stadium, which opened in 2011. The playing field is still named Red McEwen Field, the name of the old ballpark. The new ballpark has a capacity of 3,211, including a 1,500 seat spectator grandstand with a shade canopy, an elevated, shaded hospitality deck and service amenities. 11899 Bull Run Dr., Tampa.

Moving down the coast: a trip to Fort Myers wouldn’t be complete without a pilgrimage to Terry Park, the longtime home to spring training in the city originally built for Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics and and later served as the spring home of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Royals. No college plays full-time at Terry Park, but you’re assured of seeing a college game during most days in the spring, as it’s a popular spot for traveling teams to get out the winter kinks. It’s been rebuilt since those days and now is a comfortable place to watch smaller schools participate in tourneys. 3410 Palm Beach Blvd., Fort Myers.

Packard Stadium

In Phoenix, the Arizona Sun Devils play at Bobby Winkles Field at Packard Stadium on the ASU campus — for now. To get there, take the 202 Loop to the Scottsdale Road/Rural Road Exit and go south on Rural Road. Cross the river and take a right at the first stoplight (East Rio Salado Parkway) and then hang a left of Packard Drive. The ballpark is on the right (west) wide of Rural Road and the left side of Packard Drive; it’s impossible to miss. Packard Stadium is a good facility, through games are a little spendy. ASU has a great program, however, so you’re assured of seeing at least one MLB prospect on any given date.

Why for now? The Sun Devils are slated to move to Phoenix Municipal Stadium once it is vacated by the Oakland Athletics at the end of 2014 spring training. It’s a smart move: the Muni is a definite upgrade to Packard Stadium.201 S. Packard Dr., Tempe.


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