Do you love baseball? Have you ever been to Spring Training in Florida or Arizona? If not, it's time to make some plans and below, I will give you some veteran spring training tips to get the most out of your experience. In this article, I will cover how to plan your day at a game in Lakeland, Florida, the home of the Detroit Tigers since 1934. Philadelphia Phillies phans may be more interested in the Clearwater, Florida experience. If so, check out my spring training guide for a day of baseball in Clearwater.
Why Spring Training?
If you love baseball the way I do, then it's probably hard to wait through the Winter for the next baseball season. Back in 2000, I finally had enough waiting and decided to schedule my first trip to Florida to go watch my Detroit Tigers and Philadelphia Phillies play some spring training games.
So, these are just exhibition matches, right?
Yes, that is true. And to be honest, I had no idea what I was in for when I went to my first spring training. Like most people, I thought you'd show up to watch a little batting practice inside the stadium and then see a game of veterans and minor leaguers, but that is just part of the experience.
No Two Facilities or Experiences are the Same or Stay the Same
The first thing I learned is that experiences differ widely between major league teams and spring training facilities. And each year, there are changes too. For example, see the Detroit Tigers parking lot below? That used to be open to the public. I remember standing there at 8:30 AM while the players and coaches walked in from their cars. I was able to get Alan Trammell (now a Hall of Famer) and Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell's autographs while standing there. We also could walk along with the players as they went to the practice fields. I remember walking behind then team stars Tony Clark and Bobby Higginson as they chatted on the way to those fields. I also remember sitting on metal benches between fields watching warmups and pitching drills.
After the Tigers started winning again, all of this was changed and it took me a couple more trips before I figured out where at the facility you could see some of this action. It is not as open as it used to be, but you can still be somewhat immersed in the day of a ballplayer at spring training in Lakeland.
Starting Your Day
I arrived at 9:30 AM and had already secured my tickets through the Tigers website. These days a spring training ticket costs almost as much as a regular season game (it used to be about half the price). You can pay $8 to park when you buy your tickets online or $10 at the ballpark on game day. Also, if you want to watch batting practice and get inside the stadium at 10 AM, you pay $5 extra for this as well.
Why Pay Extra For Batting Practice?
If you're a fan of the home team, they take batting practice around 10:05 AM to 11 AM. The ballpark itself isn't open until 11 AM. But by purchasing this extra feature, you go in on the left side of the stadium at 10 AM and have access to the berm (this is the grassy area behind the outfield - see the picture above - where you can shag fly balls) and another secret area that we veterans of spring training love to visit (and that most people miss). I'll tell you about that in a moment. Just remember, it's best to bring a glove if you want to catch a ball hit on the berm.
If you don't pay for batting practice, you can only come into the stadium at 11 AM and then you'll get a closer up view of batting practice, but it will be the road team. You'll also have more competition in snagging those fly balls.
By the way, you can grab a drink at the Corona Cabana. This is a newer edition to Joker Marchant Stadium (aka Publix Field) with the large scoreboard above.
And Now That Insider Information
For those that want to experience what I used to experience at Joker Marchant Stadium, just walk directly through the berm and look for the bridge with palm trees all around. It may look like you're about to go into no-access areas, but as you walk along the path and get directly behind the berm, you'll find the practice fields. Here you can watch the players who aren't playing in that day's game (a mix of major and minor leaguers) doing pitching drills, taking batting practice, and the best part - chattering and talking with each other. You can walk right up to the gate.
That is Hall of Famer Alan Trammell. I was just on the other side of the gate from him, listening to him give players advice and guidance. Later, the Tigers number one draft pick Casey Mize walked by and autograph seekers tried to see if they could get him to sign.
It is fun and exciting to get autographs. Just remember, be respectful of the players. They are under no obligation to give you an autograph. Also, if you come with a book of baseball cards or balls to get signed, players may not warm to signing for you as much. Having kids becomes a big advantage here also. Not that I'm suggesting renting a kid for the day to get yourself an autograph! Ha!
I've found the earlier it is in spring training (say late-February or early March) the more willing veterans are to sign autographs. Also, you can sometimes get around the dugouts during visitor's batting practice but there isn't a lot of room there, and some ballparks require you to show you have seats in that area to get autographs at that time. The best time is to get autographs when the players have finished for the day (in spring training, for stars, this can be the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th innings). Standing along the first base side where the netting ends, Miguel Cabrera stopped to sign a bunch of autographs for fans.
What You Can Bring Into The Ballpark
First, we were told when we came in that backpacks were still allowed in 2019, but in 2020 they wouldn't be. You can bring in a tote bag, but it will get checked by security. As far as I saw, you could bring in water bottles and some food. Food is expensive in the ballpark, especially for a family. I didn't see a lot of bargains at Joker Marchant. I paid about $8.50 for a not so good Philly Cheesesteak. I probably should have opted for the Coney Island Dog, a Michigan tradition, and saved the Philly Cheesesteak for the Phillies ballpark. Water is going to cost at least $5 a bottle. So it might be wise to bring your own.
And other reason I suggest bringing your own is, Major League Baseball hasn't learned about the issues caused by single use plastics, they are everywhere. Even Aquafina is in non-recyclable plastic bottles. It feels like they could do a better job with this, especially with the exorbitant prices they charge for things.
Oh and There Is a Ballgame
I find there is so much fun watching batting practice and watching the warmups behind the berm that by the time the game starts, I've already had a full day and gotten my money's worth. The game is a bonus!
If you've never watched a spring training game, remember, the object is watch your team win, it's to watch your team, hit, run, and execute the fundamentals. Managers do not tend to manage game day situations, but instead swap players via a schedule. Most games start with a few veterans. If you ever see an SS on the schedule, it means you'll be watching a Split Squad. This means the team is only bringing half of their players and if they are the road team, most of the more established veterans will not go on road trips. But this is a chance to see your team's future. By the 6th or 7th inning, you'll start seeing uniforms without names. These non-roster invitees and lower level minor leaguers may be getting their only chance to ever don a pro team's uniform. It adds to the allure of watching these games.
What Time of Spring Training Is Best For Visiting?
The earlier you get to spring training, the more you'll see the veterans willing to interact with the fans. But you will also miss a lot of minor-leaguers who don't start to show up until a couple weeks into spring training. I've never been down during pitcher and catcher reporting time (they show up 2 weeks before everyone else). I would assume you might not get to see anything during this time, since the stadiums will not be hosting ballgames. Contact the ballparks if you're considering coming that early.
If you show up in the middle-to-end of spring training, you'll see a lot more of the veterans playing in the games. They are building up their endurance and lineups are being set. Pitchers are then trying to stretch themselves to 5 or 6 innings. The games will be more fun toward the end of spring training, but the intimate feeling of seeing the players excitement for the new season and a lot of minor leaguers will happen in early March. Take your pick!
Every baseball fan should experience spring training at least once. Personally, I was hooked after my first trip. This year marks my 8th year of heading to spring training. I don't go every year, but I make a point to come down every few years. I find it to be a great escape from cold weather and a great way to get myself into the new baseball season. And you can mix in all of the stuff Florida has to offer as well, from Sea World, Disney World, to Busch Gardens in Tampa and the beautiful white sand beaches of Clearwater. Have fun soaking up the sun and don't forget the suntan lotion!
Also don't forget to see my Phillies take on Spring Training! Clearwater's facility is my favorite!