I leave for my 7th Spring Training vacation in 7 days, and including the one other year in which I attended a few Spring Training games, I can look back on 7 years of seeing Spring Training in person.
Back when I was a bit younger, in high school, I made it to my first Spring Training. It was the first year that I was in a school with a March vacation instead of February and April, and my dad saw the great opportunity to take me to spend a week with his parents outside of Fort Lauderdale. Part of our plans was to head over to see the Yankees (before they were the "hated Yankees" or "the Skankees") in Fort Lauderdale and to make the long drive up to Port St. Lucie to see the Mets. I had no camera to document what I saw. This was back before the renovations that brought the right field berm, left field terrace, and the moniker "Tradition Field". The ticket stub and program are both in my respective collections along with all the others over the past 23 years. Not much to say about the game - no memorable players on the 1995 Mets, but in March of 1995, it wasn't even the real Mets - it was the replacement players. And that was my first Spring Training.
On to Spring Training as a vacation, which for me started in 2004 seeing an ad on MLB.com and getting a very wise idea in my head, one that has dominated me since (okay, that might be overkill).
Just a week the first year, following the Mets, but squeezing in 3 non-Mets games over the course of their off day (a Sunday night game after the Mets Sunday day game, a road trip to Disney on the off day Monday, and a day game before seeing the Mets resume play Tuesday night). I saw the orange BP jerseys, Kaz Matsui, Aaron Heilman, and a kid named David Wright coming in for late innings at 3B. I stayed in St. Lucie West and got to know the town a little bit. My how it's grown since then (I know the locals will tell me stories from the late '80s when the Mets first arrived). I also started to fall in love with Dodgertown. It was all new to me.
2005 came and I decided to go for a blowout trip and try to see every ballpark in Spring Training at the time. I came close. Fort Myers was like a little island on the Spring Training map and I didn't make it down there, but I circled the rest of the state (and bought a few t-shirts that showed the sights). I started with the Spring openers and home openers Viera, then Dodgertown and PSL the next day, and then the Cards in Jupiter. I actually got a seat in the first row right behind home plate for that first game played by the Washington Nationals, right on the screen (I determined that I was just off camera from ESPN's telecast). That was the year I had to escape New Jersey a day early because of a late February nor'easter, but that's a story for another day. After my weekend in PSL and almost getting an autograph from the Straw man, I headed out to the Gulf Coast to check out the other ballparks. Boy, it seems like yesterday, but it's now 5 years since that trip. After making the rounds in Dunedin, Clearwater, St. Pete & Tampa, Sarasota, and Bradenton, it was on to the I-4 corridor to Meet the Mets in Lakeland and Winter Haven, and a final day in Disney and Kissimmee. A few rainouts and many t-shirts later, my second trip in just under 365 days had come to an end (even with 3 rainouts, I only had 1 day without baseball being played). I also decided on about the 13th day that 12 days was long enough.
2006 was filling in some blanks left by the rain (but filling them in with nice sunny days and Mets games) mixed with a couple of WBC games in the Disney area (say what you will about the concept and execution of the tournament, but seeing the Venzuela fans rooting on their team was a fun experience). Thne it was on to my new regular vacation home (area) in Vero Beach. I finally got it right getting in a couple games in Dodgertown (easily the best park in Spring Training) mixed with the real home ballpark in Port St. Lucie and a few days in Jupiter, home of the daily Spring Training game (can't go wrong there). The locals and regulars in PSL were starting to look familiar. No more mapquest on most days. And I was in PSL on the night that SNY launched 4 years ago (more on that next week). I also found my stride with the duration of the trip and the idea that you can fly down in time for a night game if you find a ballpark near a major airport, and you can do the reverse. That's an easy way to squeeze in more baseball.
2007 brought on the quest to complete the circle around the Grapefruit League, seeing the Red Sox and Twins in Fort Myers on what I call my "side trip". A stopover in Fort Lauderdale on the way to Vero Beach meant that I had now seen every team in their home ballpark (at the time; as I had previously seen the Yankees in Fort Lauderdale). On the Treasure Coast, it was more of the same - stick with what works - bouncing between Jupiter, Vero Beach, and Port St. Lucie, with an occasional game in Viera, which had become one of my least favorite ballparks. It was also the return of my now traditional doubleheader (doubleheaders are another good way to squeeze in extra baseball) starting in Jupiter and ending in Port St. Lucie.
2008 marked a sad end to Dodgertown making a few games in Vero Beach be my "side trip". I was there for the finale. Jupiter, St. Lucie, and Viera filled in most of the other blanks on my schedule. I was able to squeeze in a hockey game in Sunrise during the trip, a first for me having a 2 sport doubleheader, and I was able to combine baseball and airports twice on that trip, also getting a chance to say goodbye to the Indians' crappy facility in Winter Haven. In Florida geography, I haven't been north of the Tradition Field complex since then.
In 2009, I considered myself lucky just to be there. A new job in January pretty much meant that I couldn't take 8 vacation days in March, but I managed to squeeze in a long weekend, staying in Port St. Lucie for the first time since 2004. That trip was well documented on this blog. No Dodgertown made for an easy schedule of Jupiter, 2 games in PSL in less than 24 hours, and a final game in Ft. Lauderdale (close to that stadium's final Orioles game before they moved), and back home.
What will 2010 bring? With Florida's east coast losing 2 teams in 2 years, and Florida losing 3 overall in that time, the choices are more limited. There are only 3 ballparks on the east coast now, when once upon a time, there were as many as 5. For me, I'm heading to Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter to Meet the Mets right from the airport on Thursday, and then I'm staying in Vero Beach for a few days while I bounce around between Viera, Kissimmee, and Jupiter for Mets road games, and of course 2 Mets home games before I head off to a side trip for a couple of days at Disney and Tigertown, and then a final weekend staying in PSL. I'd go for longer, but the schedule before I arrive wasn't too appealing to me, and I have to leave when I am in order to be home for the start of the Jewish holiday of Passover. 11 nights is good enough, but I wanted to make up some from last year.
Next on my list, at some point, is to get back to the west coast. The Rays have moved to Port Charlotte, making it the only ballpark I haven't been to. The Orioles are in Sarasota, where I saw it as the Spring home of the Reds (the 3rd team in less than 25 years). The Red Sox are planning something new in Fort Myers. And I was rained out in Clearwater at the then-2 year old stadium in 2005 and never got back (consequently, it was the only day that I was in Florida and never saw a baseball game or the inside of an airport). I've also been told that my now-retired father will be joining me for part of my 2011 trip, so I need to consider that in the plans. The paths between Port St. Lucie and Jupiter and Viera can wear out pretty quick, which is where side trips or a new tennant at Dodgertown can come in handy.
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