Over the course of a decade, Steinbrenner Field had slipped from a leading Grapefruit League fan facility to a middle-of-the-pack ballpark. After extensive offseason renovations, the spring home of the New York Yankees is once again a March jewel and worth a memorable visit from not only Yankee diehards, but baseball fans of all kinds.
Steinbrenner Field has always been a good spot to catch game action if you were lucky enough to be sitting in the lower bowl – by and large the province of season-ticket holders. Spring-training games were always formal affairs: you were expected to sit in your seats save quick bathroom breaks and runs to the concourse for a snack. There were few spots to just hang out and watch the ballgame, standing around with friends and relatives.
That formality is gone with the Steinbrenner Field renovations, as the Yankees and Kansas City architecture firm Populous came up with a plan to personalize Steinbrenner Field with a serious of group areas, casual lounges, selfie spots and plenty of spaces to visit while taking in some spring-training action. The cost wasn’t cheap – all in all, $40 million was committed by Hillsborough County ($13-plus million), the Yankees ($13 million) and the state ($13 million). It’s not a place to just reflect approvingly on 27 World Series trophies; it’s a place for fans to create their own Yankees spring training memories. On that level, it excels.
Between the Foul Poles
The “new” Steinbrenner Field experience begins in the right-field corner, where a small alternative entrance has been expanded into what many fans will experience as the main entrance to the ballpark. Most fans will park across the street at Raymond James Stadium parking and then cross Dale Mabry via bridge to access Steinbrenner Field. In the past, fans were directed from this spot to the back of Steinbrenner Field and a large ticket office, but today this serves as the beginning of the Yankees spring training experience. A new box office, complete with Will Call, is a much more inviting entrance than the old small entryway. Once past the obligatory metal detectors, you have an immediate selfie spot with a NY logo, as well as a view of the bullpen and the playing field. It’s a more elegant beginning to your Steinbrenner Field experience.
What had been mostly open space past the outfield fence is now home to a 360-degree concourse and a series of individual and group seating areas, including reserved seating at a drink rail from each corner to the batters eye. There are two-story structures in each corner. In right field, the old group seating area has been replaced by a large canopied bar and an abundance of four tops, leading down to rows of food rails and reserved chairs.
Next to the bar: a canopied cabana area that can be sold as a group area or as individual seating areas, complete with all-inclusive ballpark food and drinks. On the other side of the batters eye, in left field, the seating resumes and runs in front of the high-def scoreboard all the way to the corner. A second level incorporates more canopied drink-rail seating. The spaces on both levels can be sold as group areas or opened to the public as general admission, as they were on Opening Day.
Arriving at the ballpark about an hour before first pitch, we saw plenty of fans heading for the corner clubs to stake out a seat. The clubs feature different layouts and different themes: one features a photo montage of Yankee sluggers, while the other focuses on great Yankee pitchers. The Bullpen Club sits above the Yankees bullpen in right field, while the Third Base Club sits above the visitors bullpen in left field. Both clubs were packed on Opening Day, and we expect them to be packed throughout the rest of spring training.
Before the renovations, there were basically three seating areas in Steinbrenner Field: the lower bowl (controlled by season-ticket holders), the upper bowl (where it was easier to snare a ticket) and the right-field group area. Today, we’re hesitant to assign a specific number to the number of Steinbrenner Field seating areas, as there’s so much flexibility in the new areas. A conservative estimate would be in double figures.
We should note that even the most remote areas have great views of the action. Take, for example, the left-field group area above the Third Base Club. It’s accessible from the bar, the concourse or the seating bowl, and it features multiple rows of food rails and seats. Normally, the view from the corner would be crap, but these seats are nicely angled toward home plate, with a view of the visitors’ bullpen, to boot. These seats, which can get lost in the action, are among the best in the house.
There are still plenty of touches from the original Steinbrenner Field layout: YANKEES is still spelled out in banners on each side of the suite level, and the tradition Yankee Stadium frieze design sits on the canopy.
A Personalized Steinbrenner Field Experience
For the most part, fans will head to the rear concourse for food and beverages, a situation that really can’t be changed without major alterations to the ballpark. The concessions have been spruced up: there’s lots of Yankee blue, and what had more closely resembled a massive food court is now a more refined experience. (The food seems better as well: the $6.50 jumbo hot dog from Boar’s Head is simply outstanding. And plenty of local vendors are still represented by standalone carts.) The team store has been expanded to a two-story affair, accentuated by a huge traditional top-hat-and-bat logo on the exterior. (One word of warning. If you want to visit the tribute to the George Steinbrenner statue and retired numbers in the Tampa version of Monument Park, do so before entering the ballpark. It’s technically outside the ballpark walls, and MLB’s new spring-training policies prohibit reentry to the game.) If you look at the concessions or the exterior of the new clubs, you’ll see metal accented by striping. That’s no accident: it’s a direct homage to the Yankee pinstripes.
That spruced-up grandstand highlights one of the biggest changes to the ballpark – and it’s a change in philosophy, not an architectural upgrade. The grandstand entry tunnels sport new graphics focusing on Yankee history, but it’s not just photos of World Series trophies. The entryways are arranged by decades. For example, the large graphic focused on the 1940s and 1950s shows players running through spring-training double-play drills under the supervision of Yankee lifer Frankie Crosetti in February 1958. (Inside the tunnel: a smaller display of World Series championships and a nice shot of Mickey Mantle.) On the concourse: banners showing Yankee greats, along with an exhortation for fans to create their own Yankee memories.
And that, in a nutshell, really encapsulates the new Steinbrenner Field experience more than a recitation of new seating areas. During the game, Yankees Senior Vice President Anthony Bruno spoke passionately with us about the Steinbrenner Field upgrades and how they were designed to spur fans to create their own spring-training memories. There are plenty of selfie spots in this ballpark, including the aforementioned cap logo in the right-field corner and two numbers – 2 (Derek Jeter) and 15 (Thurman Munson) – in the outfield concourse. And, with all the new seating areas, there are plenty of vantage points for social-media pics.
With these moves, the Yankees are tapping into why fans love spring training: yes, they love the cold beer and the warm sun, but they also are cognizant into how fans experience the game today. We may have different opinions about social media and the millennials obsessively posting to Instagram and Snapchat, but all they are doing is what generations of fans have done before: they’re creating memories, but they have better technology than most of us did in decades past. Social media is merely the equivalent of your grandma’s Brownie, your uncle’s Polaroid, your mom’s Kodak Instamatic. Spring training still means seeing a first game with a grandparent, bringing a loved one to the ballpark, remembering that first baseball experience, that first spring-training memory. The graphics in the ballpark entry tunnels remind of us that those memories are precious – much more precious than a graphic showing a World Series trophy.