Though our Spring Training coverage is still a few weeks away from beginning, it is never too early to discuss how to plan the perfect Florida Spring Training vacation. In three parts, the Blog will provide readers a guide to the Grapefruit League that not only highlights each ballpark, but gives the best restaurant and hotel options in the area.
This guide begins with the I-95 corridor, which is the home to four teams: the Washington Nationals, New York Mets, St. Louis Cardinals and Florida Marlins. There was a time when the Grapefruit League was much more crowded than it is now and no part of Florida has been impacted by team departures as much as the Treasure Coast. Within the last five years, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Baltimore Orioles left the area for Glendale, Arizona and Sarasota respectively, while rumors continue to swirl that the Nationals will move to another location.
Still with three solid ballparks available, the east coast is worth visiting for any baseball fan. The most northward point is Viera, home of the Washington Nationals.
The Nationals play in Space Coast Stadium (above), a ballpark that originally opened for the Florida Marlins in 1994. The Montreal Expos began playing in the stadium in 2003 and remained at Space Coast through their transition to Washington. It amounts to a serviceable ballpark. Seats are close to the action, prices are affordable and the gameday staff runs a solid operation.
One warning to note is the ballpark's limited shade. Minimal protection is provided in the main seating bowl, while the bleacher units down each baseline are completely unprotected from the sun. These seats should be avoided, especially during day games when no shielding from the sun and cramped rows make for an even hotter afternoon.
Following the game, there are three hotels near the stadium that visitors can seek out. The Minor League players stay at the nearby LaQuinta, which offers a short walk to Viera's entertainment/retail complex, The Avenue. The Avenue contains numerous post-game options, including chains such as Chili's and World of Beer. However, the Holiday Inn and Hampton Inn on the other side of the I-95 overpass are both better hotels and each have restaurants within walking distance. In addition, The Avenue is just a short drive away, so it is not as if fans will be limited in their options.
There are no other complexes within an hour of Viera, giving a less-than-ideal commute to other locations. The Atlanta Braves and Houston Astros train over an hour away in the Orlando/Kissimmee area, while the Mets are about an 1 hour and 15 minutes down I-95. Nationals fans can and should spend extended time in Viera; however, fans of other teams will find it hard to make Viera a multiple-night destination.
Next on the I-95 corridor is Port St. Lucie, the long-time Spring Training home of the New York Mets.
Originally opening in 1988, Tradition Field (above) has undergone several renovations. The result is similar to Viera, where fans can experience an enjoyable night in a serviceable Spring Training facility.
One welcomed change made to the ballpark over the years is the increased standing room options. Those who do not want to be confined to their seats can enjoy the picnic area down the leftfield line, or the new beer garden down the rightfield line. There is also a berm behind the rightfield wall. The main seating bowl gives decent sight lines and a steep pitch in the 200 level (as seen above) allows for a good view of the field.
The best hotel options are located right near Tradition Field. By exiting the stadium lot and making a left on Peacock Blvd. visitors will find a SpringHill Suites by Marriot and a Holiday Inn Express within a short drive. In addition, both are within walking distance to numerous restaurants, though most are of a chain variety (e.g., Ruby Tuesdays and Outback Steakhouse). For those who want to avoid chains--and believe me, you will after a few days on the road--here is an alternative. A short drive down St. Lucie West Blvd from the hotels is a small shopping center that features West End Grill and Vine and Barley. West End Grill offers lunch and dinner, while Vine and Barley has a wide variety of beer and wine. Though Vine and Barley does not serve food, its location allows visitors to take in West End Grill without having to get back in the car. Both offer laid-back atmospheres and are worth visiting if you are in the area.
In less than an hour, fans can travel from St. Lucie down to Jupiter, Florida, home of the St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins. Along with being the only ballpark in Florida to host two teams, Roger Dean Stadium offers the distinction of being one of the best in the Grapefruit League, and in my opion, easily the finest on the east coast.
Roger Dean gives fans an excellent array of concession options, a seating bowl that put seats close to the action and an aesthetically-pleasing architectural style that perfectly captures the look of its home state. There are two parking options available, one is a paid lot, while the other is a small, but free garage. The garage is definitely the best choice and not just because its free. Along with keeping the car out of the hot sun for a few hours, its exit is connected to Roger Dean's main entrance.
Ticket prices are among the most expensive in Florida and weekend games for both teams are quite crowded. Cardinal fans have a strong presence in the area throughout the month, not only in Jupiter, but on the road as well. When taking in a Cardinal game, I recommend buying the tickets in advance. However, if you want to avoid big crowds and keep costs down, there is a decent alternative. Look for a mid-week contest, perhaps when a low-profile opponent is in town. For instance, this year's schedule offers a game on Tuesday, March 12 between the Marlins and Astros allowing fans to avoid premium pricing and enjoy the stadium amidst a modest crowd.
Another unique aspect of Jupiter is the Abacoa Town Center (pictured below), a planned community right outside the stadium. Shopping and restaurants are aplenty and range from J.J. Muggs Sports Bar to Hokkadi Hibachi and Sushi. It provides excellent pre or post-game options for any fan traveling to Jupiter. One problem is that there is no hotel attached to Abacoa; however, there is a Hilton Homewood Suites across Donald Ross Road. In addition, there are several beach-front hotels within a few miles of the stadium.
That concludes our look at the I-95 corridor for Spring Training travel. In part two, we will look at the west coast, Florida's most well-populated region for baseball.
All photos by Zach Spedden.