DUNEDIN, FLA.—The Super Bowl has placed an exclamation point on another NFL season, the Olympics are in full swing and major-league players begin reporting to camps in Arizona and Florida for the start of another season. Groundhogs be damned, there is no surer sign of winter being over and that spring has sprung.
From a personal perspective, as my plane touched down safely at Tampa International Airport on Monday, I was able to count them up and this is my 41st consecutive major-league spring training in Florida — three in Daytona Beach, 14 in West Palm Beach and the last 24 in Dunedin covering the Blue Jays. That’s time spent watching and hopefully learning the game at camps run by 13 different MLB managers, from Dick Williams in 1978 to John Gibbons in 2018.
As such, with all of that spring-training expertise oozing from my pores, here is an attempt to provide some useful information for fans planning on coming to Jays camp in the next six weeks, wither with a group of buddies or with family. The best places to stay, to visit, to watch baseball and obtain autographs.
FOCUS ON THE JAYS: The Blue Jays’ spring training ballpark has gone through countless name changes and facelifts and is about to go through some upgrades, but has remained on the same plot of land on which it began in 1977, at the corner of Douglas and —- . The stadium is located about 1.5 kilometres east of the Gulf of Mexico and the same distance south of Main Street.
The current name is most head-scratching. Called Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, its naming rights were purchased by a seedy used car lot on the corner of Belcher and Main that when you drive by reminds of the Sanford and Son junk yard. Old timers will remember it best as Grant Field and Dunedin Stadium.
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There are two optimum spring training locations in which to politely wait and ask for Blue Jays autographs. Prior to exhibition games starting, the daily workouts for the major-league club are held at the minor-league Bobby Mattick Training Centre, formerly the Englebert Complex. Admission is free.
Parking is on the surrounding streets, with just one town parking lot behind the outfield fence. There are five diamonds in use and the major-league players and invited minor-leaguers will trot between fields in a tightly scheduled morning and afternoon of drills. Often, the players head right through the crowds and if you’re lucky will either stop to sign before their next drills or will promise to come back and sign when they’re done. In either case, this is the best access for fans all spring and especially great for young fans to get up close and personal.
Once the games begin, check the home schedule online and buy your tickets at StubHub or through the Jays’ website. There is limited parking around the ballpark, but it’s a short walk from Main Street Dunedin to the park and if you leave your car downtown and have breakfast or lunch, walking to the game is an option.
Try and arrive at the stadium as soon as the gates open around 11:30 a.m. for a 1:00 p.m. game. The visiting team will be on the field for batting practice and they will have to head back to their clubhouse down the left field line. Many players are willing to stop and sign after BP. But if it’s strictly the Jays you’re interested in, then camp out in the stadium’s right field corner next to the home clubhouse.
Firm but polite is the key, with maybe a “Mr. Donaldson” or “Mr. Stroman” gaining more positive responses. The march of players back and forth is usually rewarding and when the starters finish their 4-5-6 innings of work, they pack their bags in the dugout, wander down to the clubhouse and either stop and sign or come back out when their workout is completed. Patience is a key.
EXPLORING THE GRAPEFRUIT LEAGUE: If you’re staying at a hotel or condo anywhere in the Clearwater/Dunedin/Tampa area, then it’s worth attending games at both the Phillies stadium, Spectrum Field, the Yankees ballpark, Steinbrenner Field, and even Lakeland’s Champions Field where the Tigers train.
The Phillies’ park is a pleasure to visit, with the best vantage points being the areas beyond the centre field and right field fences, the Tiki Bar with seating at which you can watch both the game and a little March Madness on the many TVs and the standing area over the bullpens in left-centre field where you can listen in on conversations of the relievers and watch them warm up an arm’s length away.
The Yankees’ park is unrivalled in terms of a small ballpark major-league feel. With public parking across the street next to the Buccaneers’ football stadium, make sure that you pause for a while on the overhead walkway to the field that is situated right above the Yankees five-mound bullpen. Watching CC Sabathia, Luis Severino, Aroldis Chapman and the others warm up you will gain a new appreciation of how difficult it would be to grab a bat and step into the box.
In addition to the Phillies, Yankees and Tigers, other teams within a two hour drive include the Rays in Port Charlotte, the Pirates in Bradenton, the Orioles in Sarasota and the Braves in their final season at the Disney World Complex. You will notice a visible Canadian presence at all parks, especially if the Jays are visiting.
MORE TO LIFE THAN BASEBALL? When you’ve had your baseball fix or are looking for something to fill those hours away from the park, here are some suggestions. There are dozens of public golf courses in the Tampa Bay area to challenge all levels of skill and price. Sunset on Clearwater Beach is a must.
There is greyhound racing on the causeway between St. Pete and Tampa. There is thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs in Oldsmar four times per week. The Lightning play home games in downtown Tampa, hard by the city’s Aquarium and 15 minutes from historic Ybor City, the late-night party capital of the Bay Area. (recall Dave Stewart and Todd Stottlemyre back in the ’90s).
But know that whatever your spring training pleasure, the Jays are opening the regular season on March 29 against the Yankees and winter is almost done.
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