CLEARWATER, Fla. - The old wooden bridge that connected Sand Key and Clearwater Beach was so rickety that cars were limited to 5 m.p.h.
Crossing the bridge one day in February 1994, I was a passenger in a brand-new, 12-cylinder Mercedes owned and driven by Lenny Dykstra, then the Phillies' star centerfielder.
Dykstra's body speed rarely dipped below 100 m.p.h. He was as impatient off the field as he was focused on it. And as he reined in those two high-powered engines - his and the car's - he was cursing out loud, frustrated enough that I feared he might bite through the steering wheel.
Finally, we were across the bridge. Dykstra instantly floored the silver Mercedes, sending it screeching around and past a row of stunned motorists, some of whom obviously recognized the spark plug of the defending National League champions.
"Yo, Lenny," yelled one as the Mercedes sped out of sight, "how 'bout an autograph?"
That bridge across the Intracoastal Waterway has since been replaced by a modern structure. But in Clearwater the likelihood that a Phillies fan might bump into a ballplayer - whether at intimate Bright House Field, at a bar or restaurant, or even in traffic - remains part of spring training's appeal.
When it comes to preseason baseball, Philadelphians are the luckiest of fans.
Clearwater, with its white-sand beaches, its Gulf waters and technicolor sunsets, its drinking and dining options, its golf courses and its proximity to major attractions like Disney World, is unsurpassed as a spring baseball destination.
Since 1948, the Phils have trained here, playing their games first at Jack Russell Stadium and, since 2004, at spiffy Bright House. Only the Detroit Tigers, in Lakeland since 1947, have been in one spot longer.
"Clearwater, boys, is a little like heaven on Earth," the late Richie Ashburn, who came here for 49 winters, used to counsel young players during his annual spring-training address.
This year, the defending world champions figure to lure more supporters than ever. Fans, still glowing from the team's World Series triumph, can watch lazy morning workouts, troll for autographs near the players' parking lots, sunbathe and attend games simultaneously, and maybe even get to talk to a player or two.
"We love the Phillies and we love Philadelphians," says Ebe Bower, the Chamber of Commerce's vice president for tourism. "It's been a great relationship for both."
Pitchers and catchers will report on Feb. 14 - Valentine's Day. There will be almost two weeks of workouts, drills and intrasquad games, followed by 18 spring home games from Feb. 26 to April 2. Two of the games will be World Baseball Classic exhibitions against Team USA - including Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins - and Team Canada.
But even the road games are easily accessible, in nearby towns such as Dunedin, Sarasota, Port Charlotte and Lakeland. In fact, those away games, where the majority of the crowds are focused on the home team, are actually better opportunities for Phillies fans seeking autographs and close encounters before and after games.
Bright House Field, the $25 million, 6,897-seat multi-field facility that replaced quirky Jack Russell Stadium, sits at Route 19 and Drew Street. Parking is cheap ($5 last year) and plentiful.
Tickets range from $11 for a spot on the grassy slope beyond the centerfield fence to $30 for a club-level seat. It will be best to get them early - more than half the games usually sell out, and tickets have been available for weeks.
The stadium is also jam-packed with eating and drinking options, including the Tiki Bar operated by Frenchy's, this area's legendary bar-restaurant chain.
In the next few weeks, before the games begin, fans have a chance to get to the ballpark early and watch the team - its ranks swollen by the many minor-leaguers who practice there, too - work out on several fields.
If you like and appreciate baseball esoterica, such as squeeze plays, double-play pivots and infield rotations, you'll be fascinated. At those morning workouts, you'll hear exactly what the coaches say - in language often more colorful than grammatical. In the more relaxed setting, you'll also get a better feel for the personality and quirks of the players.
(Warning: Don't bother players while they're practicing. That's a surefire way to gain a reputation as a "green fly," baseball talk for a pest, or perhaps even get ejected.)
For the sports history buff, a tiny piece of Jack Russell Stadium, built in 1955, still stands. It's a mile or so closer to downtown, at Greenwood and Seminole Avenues.
Jack Russell had loads of charm and character but very few amenities, and the ticket prices were high. Even when the Phils played home games there, they conducted their early spring workouts at the Carpenter Complex, now the site of Bright House.
If you get to Clearwater sometime other than spring training, you still might want to visit the stadium. It's home to the Clearwater Threshers, a single-A Florida State League affiliate of the Phils. In addition, the big-league team's players often show up there when rehabilitating from serious injuries.
Most players tend to eat, drink, golf and shop where they're least likely to be noticed. Endless autograph requests - even during dinner or at the movies - can be trying for even the most patient ballplayer.
But you might see them at dinner or at the mall. And occasionally, a stray Phillie or two will wander into the original Frenchy's, a place generally populated by baseball writers.
Just make sure to avoid them in slow-moving traffic.
Phillies spring training starts Feb. 14, when pitchers and catchers report. In the two weeks leading up to the first exhibition game, workouts begin early. Figure on getting to Bright House Field and the Carpenter Complex by 10 a.m. to see a full range of workouts. Those workouts - interrupted by meetings, lunch and breaks - generally continue through mid- to late afternoon, when the players depart for golf, the beach or whatever.
Once the exhibition schedule starts, it's wise to get to the ballpark early to catch infield drills and batting practice. Home games start at 1:05 p.m.; night games start at 7:05. Gates open about two hours before the first pitch.
If you're interested in seeing Chase Utley, Ryan Howard or Jimmy Rollins, check the newspaper or the Phillies Web site the day of the game. There often are two games scheduled simultaneously - split-squad games - and the big stars could be playing elsewhere.
Also, the earlier in the exhibition schedule you go to a game, the less likely you are to see much of the big names. They'll generally play three or four innings the first week and gradually increase their playing time through the spring.
Bright House Field
Named for a cable company, the ballpark opened in 2004 - the same year as Citizens Bank Park. Its dimensions are similar: 329 feet down the third-base line, 330 feet down the first-base line, and 401 feet in centerfield. It has a concourse that allows fans to walk around the entire stadium.
It's also the home of the Class A Florida State League Clearwater Threshers.
To buy tickets
By phone: 215-463-1000.
In person: The Bright House Field main ticket office and the Phillies sales office lobby at the Citizens Bank Park first-base gate (adjacent to the Robin Roberts statue), 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Berm (outfield grass) . . . $11
Tiki Terrace . . . $20
Field Box . . . $23
Premium Box . . . $25
Club Level . . . $30
- Frank FitzpatrickEndText