It seems appropriate to begin 2022’s ballpark travels at BayCare Ballpark, spring home of the Philadelphia Phillies, to gauge changes in the spring-training ballpark experience over the years.
When it opened in 2004, BayCare Ballpark—originally named Bright House Networks Field—was a state-of-the-art spring ballpark, keeping Phillies spring training in Clearwater while providing fans and players alike with an elevated experience. With a 360-degree concourse, a left-field Tiki bar and plenty of concessions spots, BayCare Ballpark ended up being a model for future spring-training venues. Integrated with the existing workout facilities built while the team still played games at Jack Russell Stadium, the Carpenter Complex/BayCare Ballpark/Phillies/Clearwater Threshers model became one to emulate across the Grapefruit League.
So we saw a slew of new ballparks (Ballpark of the Palm Beaches) and spring-ballpark renovations (Hammond Stadium, Steinbrenner Field, TD Ballpark) that took the BayCare Ballpark blueprint and implemented in their Grapefruit League community. They also improved on the BayCare Ballpark blueprint, implementing larger concourses, additional group/social spaces, and plenty of shade.
Given the advances in the state of the art when it comes to the spring-training fan experience, how does BayCare Ballpark stack up? Admirably in some ways, but in need of improvement in others.
For starters: there’s no doubt Phillies spring-training fans are among the most passionate in baseball. They buy their annual spring-training merch, they follow roster proceedings closely (we visited the day after Kyle Schwarber made his Phils debut, and the fans were still abuzz), and they’ll follow their team on the road.
On the flip side: the lockout and delay in spring training clearly impacted attendance, with only 5,091 fans at the ballpark. That’s a lower number than you’d normally see in the later stages of spring training, so it’s a fair assumption that many Phillies fans stayed behind in Pennsylvania.
The Phillies have sought money for ballpark improvements in the past for a renovated club level, new seating, expanded offices and upgraded air conditioning. In addition, at the Carpenter Complex, players would see an expanded clubhouse, more office space, and new dining facilities. The cost: $79.9 million. COVID-19 halted those proceedings, but there are plenty of ways to improve the BayCare Ballpark experience: more shade, widened concourses, more club options, larger team stores and a wider variety of social and group spaces. During a game with 5,091 fans in attendance, the grandstand concourses were still a little crowded, and more shade in the bowl would be appreciated.
Still, it’s clear that over time BayCare Ballpark has stood the test of time. The place was clean and inviting, the food selection was solid (a Philly cheesesteak at the ballpark is a mandatory experience), and staff was friendly and helpful. Is it the best ballpark experience in the Grapefruit League? Not anymore. Is it the best fan experience in the Grapefruit League? It’s certainly a contender for that crown.