Tuesday, July 29, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Sun and baseball: A solid double

Phillies fans watching a workout at 2008 spring training. Good seats at the Clearwater park are half the price fans would pay in Philadelphia.
Phillies fans watching a workout at 2008 spring training. Good seats at the Clearwater park are half the price fans would pay in Philadelphia. DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer

Pitchers and catchers - and seniors - report in a couple of weeks.

Spring training is a time of celebration and renewal and hot dogs and cold beer and the sounds that bring us joy - even when the games don't count.

Baseball being a game of statistics, here's a stat for you:

The Minnesota Twins play their spring training games in Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers, Fla. Last year, the average age of fans at those games, according to Lee County figures, was 54.5 years.

It's the same deal in Arizona. In Surprise, spring home of the Texas Rangers, the city figures that a remarkable 60 percent of the weekday fans are 55-plus, which drops to 45 percent on weekends. No surprise, says Cactus League president Robert Brinton. That's how it is in most spring training ballparks.

"Weekends you get the kids," Brinton says, "but the seniors, they're the base business, they're the staple. That's the backbone of the attendance and always has been."

The Phillies don't keep age figures, but credible witnesses speculate that the good times generated by the popular left-field tiki bar at Clearwater's Bright House Field bring down the average a bit. That's a challenge, since the last census ranked Clearwater No. 1 in the country in percentage of residents age 65 and older, at 21.5 percent.

Florida or Arizona, tropics or desert, the common attraction is baseball. And, OK, warm sunshine. And tickets that, while no longer piddling in price - and immune to senior discounting - cost about half what you'll pay at, say, Citizens Bank Park, Wrigley Field, or Kauffman Stadium for similar seats.

Typical: Very good seats in Bright House Field run $25 to $33; comparable seats at Citizens Bank this season will set you back $45 to $60.

Spring training may be spring training wherever you go - stretching, drills, autographs, games - but I've covered multiple spring trainings in Florida and Arizona, and there are differences.

The Grapefruit League is a tourist experience - or part of one. Spring training in Florida is beaches, fishing, golf, theme parks, baseball, and drives that challenge the patience of all coots, young and old. While seeing your favorite team play five games in five days in Arizona - home and away - can be done in rational comfort, only a crazy person would try to catch the Phillies at (in order) Walt Disney World, Clearwater, Tampa, Fort Myers, and Clearwater, especially when that person is staying around Clearwater Beach.

If you're set on Florida and don't care who's playing, you can plop yourself somewhere near Tampa Bay (half a dozen teams are clustered nearby) and go crazy.

The Cactus League, on the other hand, is an urban experience. Or more accurately, an urban mall experience. Phoenix is a big, sprawling city built around malls; Scottsdale is just big and sprawling, built around more malls, separated by golf-course resorts and spas. And so on through the Valley of the Sun. For texture, there are retirement communities.

Thirteen of the 15 Arizona-based teams are in this tangle. The other two (the Rockies and Diamondbacks) are in Tucson, a two-hour drive away - the scenic highlight is an ostrich farm.

Here are some senior-specific tips on how to get the most out of a spring training holiday in either state:

Minimize time on the road. It's tourist season, traffic will be thick, not everyone knows where they're going, and, sorry, not all of our reflexes and senses and patience are where they were 20 years ago.

Buy tickets for seats with backs. Many ballparks have both standard stadium seats and backless bleachers (and some have lawn areas). Backless seating can be a pain. Lawns, though cheap, are for kids, flirting, and recovering from the previous night's revelry. When in doubt about seating types, call ahead.

Be prepared for the sun. Even in early March games, when temperatures can be more moderate, the sun can be a killer. Wear a hat, bring and wear sunscreen, drink plenty of water, and when the heat starts to get to you, head for a shady spot - the concourse under or behind the stands is good. Remember: These games don't count.

Spring training crowds - especially the seniors - are notoriously friendly. Wear a team cap, a T-shirt, or some other sign of geographic identity - they're sure conversation-openers. Chatting up strangers, a fading practice at big-league ballparks, is a delightful part of the spring training experience.

Early and free. For many fans, the best of spring training is the 10 days or so when the full squad is in camp, before the games begin. At most training complexes, fans are free to roam between practice fields and watch batting practice and fielding drills close up, and sometimes chat with players. And there's no charge. There's plenty of seating when the legs get wobbly.

Buy tickets in advance. Sellouts in Florida (the Yankees are a fan magnet) and Arizona (the Cubs draw best) do happen. The Phils averaged nearly 8,000 at Bright House last spring in a park with 7,300 seats (plus 1,500 lawn spaces). In every park, seats ringing the infield sell out first, and they're the ones with backs - and sometimes, in the shade - so buying ahead can be a good idea. (Parks also have areas set aside for wheelchairs.) You can buy advance tickets for all games by phone or online through team Web sites at www.mlb.com. If you aren't computer-savvy, borrow someone's nephew.

One more point: Early-bird discount dining is rare in Arizona, but it's part of the culture in Florida.

Try the grouper.

Alan Solomon For The Inquirer
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