March is always circled on the calendars of rabid baseball aficionados like myself. When we flip our calendars to March it means baseball is only a month away from returning to our lives full-time. It is the time of year when all fans from those of the World Series champions to those of the last place team have hope for the season ahead. Some fans are lucky enough to travel to either Florida or Arizona to see their teams prepare for the long season ahead. In previous years my father and I would visit the Yankees training facility in Fort Lauderdale and then eventually in Tampa.
We last took our annual trip in 2007 as my previous job had prevented me from traveling during much of February and March the past few years. Last month I traveled to Tampa for two Spring Training games. Dad stayed on the east coast of the state and I took in a few games with friends. These games were my first Yankees Spring Training games in over 10 years, as Dad and I would go the week position players reported. Nothing like four hours a day of batting practice and fielding drills to get you pumped for a season…seriously!
My first game was in Dunedin where the Toronto Blue Jays were hosting the Yankees. As I was driving to the ballpark, I looked at my GPS and saw I was less that half a mile away. I asked my friend Alison, “Where is the ballpark? We’re in the middle of a neighborhood!” That’s right, Florida Auto Exchange Stadium is neighbors with a library and Mr. & Mrs. Jones. One could say it is a charming ballpark. It is everything you would expect from a minor league park. The ballpark holds just over 5,000 fans, has a chain-link fence around the field, and features a pretty simple scoreboard. The field and bullpens are very accessible to the fans. I even got Andruw Jones to sign a baseball for me during batting practice!
During the game, much like a minor league game, a MC was in the crowd. There were contests for the loudest section, giveaways to various restaurants in the area and a gentleman in my section won a free case of Bud Light. I only wish I could remember why! Throughout the concession area the line-ups were posted, a silent auction was being held with signed memorabilia for a local charity (I bid on a Curtis Granderson ball…someone outbid me. Maybe next time.), there was also an area called the “Canadian Grill”. I didn’t see anything different in the Canadian Grill that you couldn’t get at and of the other concessions. Maybe it was just a place, in the shade, our friends from North of the Border could feel comfortable?
The next day I was on my way to George M. Steinbrenner Field (GMS Field), previously known as Legends Field, to see the Yankees yet again take on the Toronto Blue Jays. Since I had been to this ballpark before I knew what to expect. GMS Field is the exact opposite of Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, it holds about 4,000 more fans, is surrounded by a community college, car dealerships and Raymond James Stadium (home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and my University of South Florida Bulls football teams). GMS Field is also on a major roadway.
GMS Field feels like you’re walking into a mini Yankee Stadium, which of course was done on purpose, even the dimensions of the field are the same as in the Bronx. Much like during the regular season in the Bronx, only fans with field level seats were permitted down to the field inside the bases during batting practice, Paul Olden was the in-house announcer, in-between innings there wasn’t an MC giving away free beer, but there was the great “New York Subway Race” and “Who’s That Baby Bomber?”.
I was able to move around pretty easily along the inner concourse during the game. Except for the patio area, I was not able to stop and watch a few pitches before a security guard told me I needed to move on. Below are some photos I was able to take while wandering around:
Overall the experience between the two games was night and day. I viewed the game in Tampa as a warm up for the season for everyone, not just the players. I have never been to a game in Toronto, so I cannot compare the Spring Training and regular season game experience like I was able to for the Yankees. I do however, have a feeling that what I saw in Dunedin is not what you get in Toronto. As much as I love the Yankees and their tradition, I think I enjoyed the overall atmosphere of the game in Dunedin.
Next year I hope to travel to more Spring Training parks around Florida and hopefully one day make good on the promise to myself to travel to Arizona for Cactus League Spring Training. After all, there is no such thing as too much baseball.