Tampa focal point of spring training baseball trip
New York Yankees' Tino Martinez, Joe Girardi, Ron Guidry, Goose Gossage and Derek Jeter read a tribute to the late George Steinbrenner before the start of a spring training game against the Philadelphia Phillies at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Florida. (STEVE NESIUS, REUTERS / February 26, 2011)
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Fans have been traveling to Central and South Florida for decades to get a glimpse of veteran stars and new prospects alike during spring training, and the epicenter of the Grapefruit League is Tampa. Twelve of Florida's 14 spring training stadiums are within about a 2 1/2-hour drive of Tampa, with the other two camps about 3 1 / 2hours away.
Baseball greats like Al Lopez, Wade Boggs, Tony La Russa, Dwight Gooden and Lou Piniella all have roots here, but Alejandro de Quesada, author of the book "Baseball in Tampa Bay," says organized preseason baseball in the area is as old as spring training itself, dating back as far as 1913 and 1914. The old St. Louis Browns set up camp in neighboring Pinellas County, the Chicago Cubs were in Tampa proper and other early camps in the area included the Boston Braves, who worked out in St. Petersburg, and the Brooklyn Dodgers, who set up shop in Clearwater from 1923-32 and 1936-40, according to de Quesada.
"Clearwater is one of the oldest sites," he said. "Then Tampa followed suit."
Today, 15 Major League Baseball teams — most belonging to the eastern divisions of both the National and American leagues — make Florida their offseason home. Here's a guide to their stadiums.
GEORGE M. STEINBRENNER FIELD: Located in north Tampa, this is the winter home of the 2009 World Series champion New York Yankees. The facility's name was changed from Legends Field in 2008 to honor Steinbrenner, the team's longtime owner. Steinbrenner, who lived in Tampa, died last year. According to its website, the field's dimensions are identical to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, with 11,000 seats and 12 luxury suites.
De Quesada recommends a side trip from the stadium to nearby Al Lopez Park on North Himes Avenue, where a statue honors the Cuban-American baseball great. Lopez, born in Tampa's Ybor City neighborhood — home of the old Cuban cigar manufacturing industry — was the oldest living member of the Hall of Fame when he died at age 97 in 2005. He took the Chicago White Sox to the World Series in 1959 and also managed the Cleveland Indians to an American League pennant in 1954. Nicknamed "El Senor," Lopez returned to Ybor every offseason.
From Tampa International Airport to Legends Field, proceed out of the airport exit to Spruce Street. Go about two miles, then turn left on North Dale Mabry (US Highway 92) for approximately a mile. The field will be on your left.
BRIGHT HOUSE NETWORKS FIELD: Clearwater has been the winter home of the Philadelphia Phillies since 1948. The 2008 World Series champs moved into 7,300-seat Bright House Field in 2004 after playing at the old Jack Russell Stadium a few miles away since 1955. Bright House has a 360-degree main concourse that opens out to the playing field, with a popular tiki-hut pavilion in left field.
From Tampa, take Highway 60 (Courtney Campbell Causeway) west. Cross over Highway 19 and at the next stoplight (Old Coachman Road), turn right (north). Go north through the Drew Street intersection. Stadium will be on right at 601 N. Old Coachman Road.
FLORIDA AUTO EXCHANGE STADIUM: The Toronto Blue Jays have spent the winter in Dunedin ever since the expansion team came into existence in 1977. This ballpark, formerly known as Dunedin Stadium, underwent a $12 million renovation in 2002, and has a more intimate feel than most. Located in a residential area, it seats just 5,500 people, according to the Florida Grapefruit League Association website.
The U.S. and Canadian flags fly side by side in the outfield, and "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "O Canada" are both played before each game.
From Tampa, take State Road 60 across Tampa Bay, then turn right on McMullen Booth Road. At Sunset Point Road, turn left. Cross US 19. At Douglas Avenue, turn right. Parking is at the second stoplight.
McKECHNIE FIELD: An hour's drive south from Tampa to Bradenton will get you to McKechnie Field, where the Pittsburgh Pirates make their home during the offseason. The Pirates have been at McKechnie since 1969 and, according to the Grapefruit League Association, signed an agreement with the city in 2008 to stay for another three decades.
The field, with its Spanish Mission-style architecture, was built in 1922, making it one of the oldest in the league. During the 2008 spring training season, the Pirates debuted renovations including a new visitor's clubhouse, media lounge and lights. The field has a capacity of 6,562.
Local attractions include the South Florida Museum and Village of the Arts, a neighborhood of artists' galleries and studios.
The stadium is named after Hall of Fame manager Bill McKechnie, a Pittsburgh native and former Bradenton resident.
From Tampa, go south on I-75 to exit 220 B at Route 64. Go west on Route 64 to Ninth Street West. Turn left. McKechnie on the left.
ED SMITH STADIUM: A 20-minute drive south of Bradenton in Sarasota, fans can find the Baltimore Orioles at newly renovated Ed Smith Stadium. The retooled venue is marked by its many columns and archways and a new high-definition video board in center field.