Spring (training) fling

On your road trip to Clearwater, take some reverent and rollicking detours to hallowed baseball landmarks.

A sign greets visitors to the Royston, Ga., home of the Ty Cobb Museum. (Credit: Ty Cobb Museum)

For too many seasons, the Phillies played the role of pinstriped Pied Pipers. Their loyal fans followed them blindly, even when, as usually happened, they were marched off the cliffs of despair.

But now, in these glorious seasons of baseball bliss for Phillie Phanatics throughout the area, the destinations have changed. These days, there are no bad trips. In spring, summer, and, yes, even fall, fans happily trail the Phillies wherever they lead - to New York, Washington, Pittsburgh, and beyond.

And in winter, ever-increasing numbers are making the nearly 1,000-mile drive to the team's preseason home in Clearwater, Fla., where, especially in snow-filled seasons like this one, baseball, burgers, and beaches are a powerful lure.

Too often, however, the journey is a blur. Too many fans simply get on I-95 and make a beeline for the Sunshine State, stopping only to fuel body and vehicle, to get a few hours' sleep in an exit-hugging motel, or to take in the tackiness at South of the Border.

In doing so, you're missing a wonderful opportunity to spice up the trip. With a modicum of planning and a little extra time budgeted, you can transform a ho-hum drive into an enjoyable, baseball-flavored road trip.

If you're pressed for time, you can still take I-95, but you might take an occasional exit to visit easily accessible, sometimes quirky sites rich in the game's colorful history. Those with extra time and curiosity can do even better without delaying your Clearwater arrival too much.

Now that the starters have joined newcomer Roy Halladay and the other pitchers and catchers for workouts, here are some baseball-related stops both types of spring-training pilgrims might want to consider on your way to Florida this month and next:


For I-95 huggers

After just an hour or so, you can get off at Exit 85 to stop at the Cal Ripken Stadium complex in Aberdeen, Md.

Named for and built by the Orioles legend's foundation, the handsome stadium and its adjacent fields are visible from the highway. Baltimore's Class A affiliate, the IronBirds, play there and, in season, there are always visiting youth leagues working out on the adjacent fields.

Games don't begin until April, but tours are available. Not surprisingly, given the place of honor Ripken occupies in the hearts of his fellow Marylanders, the venue has become a popular spot for weddings.

Once you hit Baltimore, get off at one of the exits for Camden Yards. The Orioles stadium is just three blocks from the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum. If you park at the stadium and walk, you can get to 216 Emory St. by following the 60 baseballs, commemorating Ruth's longtime home-run record, painted on the sidewalks.

Ruth was born in that house in 1895, in an upstairs bedroom that has been re-created in turn-of-the-century decor and opened to the public. The rowhouse neighborhood occupied by the Orioles ballpark and the NFL Ravens' M&T Bank Stadium was once home to seedy rooming houses, brothels, and saloons, like the one Ruth's father operated.

Hundreds of artifacts about the Sultan of Swat are on display, as are those that reference Ruth's enormous influence on the game and American culture.

Just over two hours south is Fredericksburg, Va. Exit I-95 there for some American-history-flavored baseball - though you're going to have to use your imagination.

Baseball and the Civil War are more than the subjects of Ken Burns documentaries. The War Between the States helped baseball become America's game. As encamped soldiers learned and played it, the young sport grew exponentially.

There are no specific Civil War sites in Virginia referencing that link, but the I-95 corridor is teeming with battlefield sites. At Fredericksburg, you can see the pristine pastures and meadows where soldiers, some of whom were commanded by the sport's apocryphal founder, Gen. Abner Doubleday, played on the eve of battle.

While you're in Fredericksburg, drive five minutes west to Locust Grove, Va., where a quirky 27-hole golf course, Meadows Farms, contains an even quirkier homage to baseball.

The par-3 eighth hole on the Waterfall Nine is a baseball field, with the tees behind home plate (160 yards from the whites, 88 from the reds) and the green in centerfield.

The hole was a dream of the owner, "The Farmer" Bill Meadows, who pitched in high school, says course vice president Bobby Lewis. "Just after the hole was built, [Meadows] took out a driver and launched one well over the fence. He said he 'always wanted to hit one like that.' "

Meadows Farms also has the longest hole in the country - an 841-yard par-6.

In North Carolina, the town of Wilson abuts the highway just below Rocky Mount. It's home to historic Fleming Stadium, a classic minor-league ballpark built in the 1930s. The '56 Phillies, with future Hall of Famers Richie Ashburn and Robin Roberts, once played an exhibition game there against Ted Williams' Red Sox.

Fleming Stadium also houses the North Carolina Baseball Museum, which pays tribute to the 317 North Carolinians who have reached the big leagues, including Hall of Famers Catfish Hunter, Buck Leonard, and Gaylord Perry, and ex-Phils Dickie Noles, Don Cardwell, and Wes Covington.

If that golf hole and the connection between baseball and the Civil War were of interest, you might enjoy a stop at Hilton Head Island, S.C.

On Christmas Day 1862, the exclusive golf course-laden resort at the state's southern tip was the scene of one of the best-attended sporting events in the country to that time. A crowd of 40,000 watched the 165th New York Regiment, the renowned Duryeé's Zouaves, play an all-star team of Union soldiers.

Just as you're getting anxious to reach Clearwater, I-95 passes the beautiful city of Savannah, Ga. Only 25 miles south of Hilton Head, Savannah was the spring-training home of the Phillies in 1904 and from 1906 to '08. Connie Mack's Philadelphia A's also practiced there in 1911.

That city's diversions apparently impacted the two clubs differently.

The '04 Phils were the first in franchise history to lose 100 games, and the club went a combined 289-314 in those four regular seasons. The A's, meanwhile, won a World Series following their only Savannah spring.

In two more hours, you'll be in Florida and, with baseball fever raging by then, you probably won't want to stop until you hit Bright House Field.


The more leisurely route

Start your southbound journey by heading for Maryland's Eastern Shore. Mack unearthed two of his Philadelphia A's greatest stars - Hall of Famers Jimmie Foxx and Frank "Home Run" Baker - in that pastoral piece of Chesapeake Bay landscape.

Baker hailed from Trappe, while Foxx, the slugging Double X of the A's 1929-31 dynasty, was born in Sudlersville.

In Foxx's quaint hometown, a life-size bronze statue of the legendary home-run hitter can be found in a small park at Routes 300 and 313.

Curiously, there's a statue of another Philadelphia slugger in another Eastern Shore community. The bronzed Bill "Swish" Nicholson, who played for the Phillies from 1949 to 1953, stands on West Market Street in his hometown of Chestertown, Md.

Any devoted Phils fan from the Ryan Howard era will want to detour west to Interstate 81 in Virginia. That highway passes through the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains. There, on a hillside between the cities of Staunton and Roanoke, is Buena Vista (pronounced BYU-na vista), the beloved bucolic home of Phillies manager Charlie Manuel.

You'll find plaques and signs proudly ballyhooing Manuel, a multisport star at Parry McCluer High, as its favorite favorite son. (Another sign in Buena Vista proclaims that the town is home to "6,002 happy citizens and 3 old grouches.")

After that, get back on I-81 south and take it to I-77 south. At Charlotte, N.C., head east on I-85 for 35 miles, until you hit Salisbury, home of the National Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association.

There are few things that bring to mind baseball better than great announcers and great sports columnists. And while this hall hasn't inducted any members since 2005 and is occupying temporary quarters at 323 N. Main St., 80 of them are honored there, including Red Barber, Mel Allen, Vin Scully, Red Smith, and Grantland Rice. While you're there, you might want to lobby for Harry Kalas.

About 125 miles west on I-85 is Greenville, S.C., where baseball immortal Shoeless Joe Jackson lived and died.

The country-boy phenom who so infamously became entangled in the 1919 Black Sox scandal began his career as a 13-year-old with the Brandon Mills team in a local textile league. He initially signed with Mack's A's, but his fame came with the White Sox. Jackson's lifetime batting average is an astounding .356.

There's an exhibit in Jackson's honor in the lobby of City Hall, including a replica of his famed bat, "Black Betsy." Shoeless Joe Jackson Memorial Park is on West Avenue, about two miles from downtown. The park contains a ballpark, a Jackson sculpture, and the ballplayer's boyhood home, which was moved to the site in 2006.

Baseball fans have long flocked to Greenville in search of Jackson lore and artifacts. An illiterate, some of his only known signatures were on real estate documents, some of which have been torn from City Hall record books. He is buried in Section 5 of Woodlawn Memorial Park.

Continue west on I-85 to Route 17 in Georgia. Follow the signs for Royston, the birthplace of one of Jackson's most famous contemporaries, and one of only two men with a higher lifetime average: Hall of Famer Ty Cobb.

In an office park along Route 17, you'll find the Ty Cobb Museum, whose mission, in part, is to polish the tarnished reputation of the Georgia Peach. These days, Cobb is as well-known for his misanthropy as for the mind-boggling baseball statistics he compiled.

The museum features photos of Cobb as a child, as a Detroit Tiger - and his last two seasons with the Philadelphia Athletics - and as a very successful businessman. (He was an early investor in Coca-Cola.) Among its baseball artifacts are his 1907 batting championship medal.

Get back on I-85 south to Atlanta, pick up I-75 south, and in about 175 miles take Route 84 west for 15 miles. You'll be in Cairo (pronounced KAY-ro), Ga., where Jackie Robinson was born.

The man who in 1947 broke Major League Baseball's color barrier is honored with a historical marker at the site of his boyhood home, and with his name on a baseball field and a 10-mile stretch of Route 93.

It's a short hop from Cairo to the Florida Panhandle, and before long you'll be eating the grouper burgers at Frenchy's and watching Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley practice turning two.

And, if you missed any of those historic spots on your way down, there's always the drive home.


Quick Detours

Aberdeen, Md.

Cal Ripken Stadium complex
873 Long Dr.


Oriole Park at Camden Yards
333 W. Camden St.

Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum
216 Emory St.

Fredericksburg, Va.

Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park

Locust Grove, Va.

Meadows Farms Golf Course
4300 Flat Run Rd. Southeast

Wilson, N.C.

Fleming Stadium
North Carolina Baseball Museum
300 Stadium St.

Hilton Head Island, S.C.

Site of game between Duryeé's Zouaves and all-star team of Union soldiers in 1862.

Savannah, Ga.

Philadelphia A's spring training site and Phillies practice field in early 1900s.

Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.