I was able to take in my first ballgames of 2008 this weekend with a trip to Florida. While spring training is still enjoyable as the weather is almost always great and the atmosphere is more relaxed, it has certainly changed for the worse over the past 12 years since my first visit. Players are not nearly as accessible or accommodating as they used to be and and even though gates are open 2-2.5 hours ahead of game time, fans are not able to see the home team take batting practice. In most cases, the home team players are only seen a few minutes before the first pitch. With more and more new facilities getting built, access to the players only gets more difficult. This is a shame as being able to see your favorites players up close used to be one of the great aspects of spring training.
Some comments on the ballparks I visited (updated photos and reviews to be posted soon) :
Chain O'Lakes Park (Winter Haven, FL) - a classic spring training venue that is most likely in its last season of hosting Grapefruit League baseball (the Indians are moving to Arizona). The covered grandstand and open air press box are what make this park unique. Unfortunately it really is not suitable for large crowds as the concourse areas are small and concession stands limited. This is certainly one of the more laid back atmospheres in Florida.
City of Palms Park (Fort Myers, FL) - the ballpark is still one of my favorites in Florida, but the atmosphere is not nearly as relaxed as it used to be. Each time I go, the fans are more and more crazy. With the fans being so passionate, it is little wonder that the players are so afraid to show their faces.
Progress Energy Park (St. Petersburg, FL) - another ballpark probably in its last season of hosting spring training baseball as the Rays are moving to a renovated Charlotte County Stadium in 2009. While it is an older ballpark, it doesn't have a lot of charm. There is lots of concrete and too much bleacher seating. Also, the concourse can become very cramped with large crowds. Still, the location right on the water cannot be beat. Fortunately the Rays are floating a proposal to build a new major league ballpark on the site of Progress Energy Field. Sounds like a good idea to me.
McKechnie Field (Bradenton, FL) - while lights have been installed for the 2008 season, not much else has changed since my last visit in 1996. Despite being rebuilt in the early 1990's, this ballpark actually has quite a bit of charm and among the four I visited this weekend, probably the most relaxed atmosphere. Also, a good variety of concessions can be found here. A simple ballpark that provides a link to what spring training baseball used to be like.