Day 5 - March 10, 2013 - Pirates-Orioles @ Sarasota
This is part of my "road trip", spending a couple of days away from Port St. Lucie and the east coast of Florida while the Mets have a long gap in between home games. I'm out on the Gulf Coast checking out some of the spring training sites out here. Sunday's stop was in Sarasota to see the Baltimore Orioles host the Pittsburgh Pirates. Instead of giving a game recap, since it really doesn't matter to the Mets fans reading, I will talk about the ballpark experience since it's very likely not familiar to my readers.
So Sunday's stop was at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota. This ballpark was originally the spring home of the Chicago White Sox when the Grapefruit League was thriving (1989), and the Cincinnati Reds moved in during the great Spring Training shift of 1998. The Orioles moved in for the 2010 Spring Training season and renovated the ballpark for 2011. I was very very impressed with the renovations that the Orioles did to the ballpark (since the last time I was there, which was in 2005 for a Reds game). Basically, the ballpark was modernized and raised to what I think are the new standards for Spring Training. First, it doesn't have the appearance of an old ballpark. The physical structure doesn't look like it needs a paint job or is showing its age. The seats and signage are all new or greatly re-done. Basically, I think the baseball diamond and mailing address are the same, and everything else is new. I'd have to look at pictures from my 2005 trip to get a before-after comparison, but I guess I would consider it a new ballpark.
Probably the biggest thing is that you walk around the outside (on city streets in a part of Sarasota), and you know that THIS park belongs to the Baltimore Orioles. Different Orioles logos and signage on the exterior of the building (for example, there are O's logos on the canopies over the ticket windows and banners that, on the outside of the stadium, spell out "Birdland" - 1 banner for each letter). There are Orioles logos affixed to the exterior of the structure itself as part of the overall architecture (as opposed to a fathead decal on the wall). Just like at Camden Yards, the gate doors all have Orioles bird logos on them. You get the idea. This ballpark belongs to the Orioles.
Inside, when entering at home plate, you're greeted by a chandelier-like structure hanging from the ceiling of the entrance way (which is 2 stories high) which has all of the Orioles' championship banners (World Champs, AL Champs, AL East Champs, AL Wild Card team) hanging from large rings which are held together by baseball bats. Inside, there are different Orioles logos and a few photos on the walls. And of course, there is a large team store next to the home plate entrance. They also celebrate the 3 years of Orioles Spring Training at the ballpark since the renovations with the different Orioles Spring Training logos (MLB has a different logo for Spring Training each year with a spot for a team's logo) painted on the walls in a certain area of the inner concourse.
Aside from all of the Orioles stuff (and I probably forgot some of it), there are wide concourses, shade overhang, and a second level concourse at the top of the "upper" level seating. It's not quite as it sounds. Basically, the street-level concourse has an inner side (which is wide, completely under cover with some patio-like areas outside) and an outer side in the seating area with the 100 level seating "below" it (closer to the field) and the 200 levels "above" it (raised up and further from the field) with the "upper" concourse at the top of the 200 level seating. I like that because it gives some drink rail and handicap seating with elevator access that is out of the way of the rest of the seating, plus additional concessions and restrooms. They also have a small lounge with a bar and televisions showing the game and other games, but I got the impression that it's not always open to the public. Plenty of shade on the upper concourse. They had the Orioles retired numbers on the press box facade (behind home plate).
There is also drink rail and table seating beyond the Left Field wall with a concession stand and bathrooms out there. Along the foul lines, there is a low railing and the front row is basically the same level as the field, so there is plenty of space in which to get autographs down the foul lines and next to the dugouts. The bullpens are down the foul lines past the seating areas (not in play) with some access (though you have to reach from above) to both of them. The Orioles occupy the 1B/RF side of the field with their clubhouse beyond the RF wall. Unfortunately, I did not get any autographs because there was no batting practice, and by the time players were coming out to stretch and throw in the half hour before the game started, the ushers were sending people back to their seats.
If you're familiar with other Grapefruit League parks, I would draw comparisons to the Braves park at Disney World with the covering over the highest level seats (though this park has a canopy over the seats to provide more shade rather than just bars that should be holding up a canopy) and for the concourse being at outside sidewalk level (i.e. no ramps or steps up from outside). And also for the foul line and dugout access, though this park had a bit more of it. It also resembled Space Coast Stadium in Viera (home of the Nationals) with the home plate entrance opening up to a wide gap in the seating area to come out to the outer concourse and with the press box right above it that doesn't really go much wider than one or two sections. They have similar left field home run territory seating, but I think Sarasota's is bigger and more attached to the rest of the seating.
One other interesting thing that I mentioned on Facebook after seeing it was how the visiting team enters the complex and their clubhouse. Basically, the team's 2 buses pull up on the street along first base, county police providing security in the ballpark ropes off the concourse to create a secure corridor (think a railroad crossing), and the players get off the buses on to the sidewalk, come through a gate in the patio off of the concourse, and walk right past the fans through the concourse and into their clubhouse. Very low privacy there. I did see one player stopping to sign an autograph for a fan, but I don't know how common that is (considering they're basically holding up traffic). It's probably a bit unusual that the players even arrive that late in the day that fans are already in the ballpark, but on this particular day, there was no batting practice inside the ballpark (for all I know, Pittsburgh, who trains about 20 minutes away from Sarasota, hit at home, boarded the bus in uniform, and drove to the game aiming to get there about 45 minutes before first pitch), so the visiting team didn't need to be there early.
Overall, aside from the souvenir t-shirts and parking being on the more expensive side, I definitely think Sarasota is a park worth visiting. And for the game, the Pirates won 4-2.
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