Spring Training Guide – Part 1

I’m getting anxious for Spring Training. I can’t help it. It’s dang cold here and nobody I care about at all is in the NFL playoffs, I don’t care at all about the NHL or NBA and no college team I care about is any good at all at basketball. It’s January and I have no reason whatsoever to care about anything sports related except baseball. Some might call that pathetic. Maybe it is.

I’ve heard from enough people that are considering taking their first Spring Training adventure to Ft. Myers this spring that I thought I might put together a series of posts that reflect a few things I’ve learned from my own experiences over the past few years. Keep in mind, I’m no expert on the subject and I have tended to find out what I like and don’t like just by going down there and playing it by ear. That’s pretty much just how I roll on casual personal travel in the first place.

Ron Gardenhire signs autographs at Spring Training

Most fans going to Spring Training for the first time have the same sorts of questions about tickets, hotels, food options, what goes on besides the Spring Training games themselves. In short, why should you go and what should you expect when you get there? That’s most people, of course… I am not most people. I went to my first Twins’ Spring Training game out of boredom. I was spending three weeks in the St. Petersburg FL area for work one March and saw that the Twins had a ST game in Tampa against the Yankees over one of the weekends I was there… so I went. I haven’t missed a Spring Training since.

Take that as a warning… if you go once, you’re probably going to want to go again. In a perfect world, I’d take the entire month of March off from work and spend it in Florida. It sucks that the world isn’t perfect.

I’ll break this in to three posts. Today I’ll cover some basic questions. The next post (whenever I get around to posting it) will focus on the Spring Training games themselves and then the last post will touch on things to do beyond just attending ST games.

How do I get there?

Some people really like cross-country driving. I used to be one of them. I’m also sure that there can be something fun and exciting about spending 24+ straight hours in a car with or without travel companions. I have no idea what those might be, however. I highly recommend flying.

Southwest Florida International Airport in Ft. Myers is served by several major airlines, including Delta, American, United and others, as well as a few other less major airlines (Southwest, AirTran, etc.). The existence of several “discount” airlines in this market usually makes fares relatively reasonable… unless you happen to be flying down there from Cedar Rapids IA, like me. I usually get a decent fare on Allegiant, which has direct flights from CR to St. Petersburg, which is about a 2 hour drive from Ft. Myers. You could probably also look for cheap fares to any other Florida city if you’re prepared for an even longer drive to Ft. Myers.

Do I need to rent a car there?

Yes, you or someone in your travel party will need a car. Don’t even think for a moment about trying to get by without one. Just do it. You’ll never be sorry you have one and if you don’t have one, I’ll guarantee you will, at some point (probably very early in your adventure) be sorry you don’t.

Where should I stay?

This is always a tough one to answer, because everyone’s tastes (and budgets) with regard to hotels is different. If I’m traveling alone, I feel like I spend so little time at the hotel itself that I don’t care about anything except having a clean room and reliable internet connections. Having food options nearby is nice.

There are no hotels in “easy walking distance” to the Lee County Sports Complex (the Twins’ ST facility). Most hotels that claim to be near the Ft. Myers airport will also be easy drives to the ballpark. Hotels on South Cleveland Avenue are also good bets to be a reasonable distance to the ballpark. (Note, hotels on North Cleveland Avenue will put you closer to the Red Sox facility.)

I’ve never had a problem getting a decent room for under $100 per night. Using Priceline.com or a similar internet site, you may even get something decent for $70 or even less. Verify your reservation before you head south. The only time I’ve ever had a problem getting a place to stay in Ft. Myers was the year I got down there and discovered the hotel had erroneously canceled my reservation. That was not a fun experience.

When I first considered going down to ST, I was hesitant because it coincides with “Spring Break” and in my mind, that meant expensive hotel rates and rowdy college kids. I’ve never had an issue with either problem, probably because I do not even try to look at hotels on/near the beach.

When should I go?

Choosing when to go see ST games is different than deciding when to go see the Twins play during the regular season. During the regular season, I make my plans based on factors such as the opponent, the standings, and pitching matchups. None of that really matters in Spring Training. Sure, you might think seeing the Twins host the Yankees would be very cool… until you show up and realize there are only 2-3 players wearing Yankee uniforms that you’ve ever heard of.

Chris Cates gets an AB in 2010 Spring Training

Instead, you need to make your decision based on what you want to see. I tend to break down the ST season in to 10-day segments. It’s not exact… but it’s close enough for my planning purposes.

Games 1-10: In early March, there are more players in the Major League camp. Pitchers don’t throw more than 1-3 innings in a game and “regular” position players generally come out of games after a couple of plate appearances. So if you are hoping to see the stars play a lot of baseball, this is not the time for you to go. On the other hand, if you are wondering who all these players are that the Twins signed during the off-season that you’ve never heard of… here’s your chance to find out what they look like. You’ll may see five or more pitchers throw an inning or two each in every game. Don’t even TRY to keep a score card.

Another thing to consider, especially if you are a big follower of minor leaguers, is that formal minor league games don’t start as early as the Major League games do. If you want to see minor league action, don’t rush to get down there the first week of March.

Games 11-20: Toward the middle of March, starting pitchers are getting 3-4 innings in and starting position players are playing at least 5-6 innings. This means many of the pitching prospects who have been in Major League camp to this point, will be getting sent across the facility to the minor league complex where they’ll get more innings in, since the formal minor league workouts and games are now underway.

This is the period that I personally prefer to spend time at ST. The atmosphere is pretty relaxed and informal (and the players are generally still having fun being back on the field playing ball again after the off-season), but the regular players are playing a few more innings to start getting their timing at the plate or building up stamina by throwing more pitches/innings on the mound.

Games 21-30: By this time, the “final” rotation is getting set up and throwing more pitches each start. Most of the Major League roster is set and those players are getting most of the playing time through 7 innings or so. You’ll still get a look at a handful of minor league prospects brought up to finish out the 8th-9th innings of games.

You also may notice some more subtle differences among the players. They’ve been “practicing” for over a month and playing games that don’t count. They’re anxious to get the season started and some of them aren’t quite as generous with their time signing autographs and interacting with fans, in general. On the other hand, if there’s going to be competition for any of the remaining Major League roster spots, this is your chance to see that drama play out.

That’s enough for today. Look for Part 2 tomorrow… or the next day… or next week sometime. Get off my back, I’ll post it eventually! 

– JC