Spring Training Guide – Part 3

Image: TD Davis

BULLETIN! We interrupt this post to bring this news… Mr Incredible, Jim Thome, is coming back. Reports are coming through that the Twins signed Thome to a $3 million contract (plus incentives) for 2011. That’s at the top end of what I would have paid for Jim and, while you could still argue the Twins need RH hitting more, I can’t complain about this. It just feels good to have Thome back for another year.

We now return you to our regularly scheduled post… – JC

In the first two parts of this Spring Training Guide, we’ve discussed issues to consider as part of the planning process for a trip to visit the Twins’ Spring Training site in Ft. Myers FL and what to expect in terms of the games themselves. But let’s be honest, if all you’re doing is going to some ballgames, you might as well wait a couple of extra weeks and go watch the Twins at Target Field. Spring Training games are, after all, just practice games. So why travel over 1500 miles to watch the Twins practice?

OK, I honestly don’t have a good answer to that question. It’s not easy to explain. Suffice to say that, if you have to ask that question, it’s not likely that you’d understand any answer I could come up with anyway. Maybe you should just accept that those practice games take place in southwest Florida and any reason to spend time in March down there is a good reason to go. But let’s ask some related questions anyway.

What do you do other than go watch baseball games?

Go watch baseball practice, of course! No… seriously… I mean it.

Minor League pitchers at work

I enjoy watching baseball practice. Maybe I’m odd that way or maybe it goes back to the days I spent as a kid on practice fields with my dad while he was coaching high school baseball in Albert Lea. But I can spend hours wandering the practice fields at the Lee County Complex watching players at all levels in the Twins organization practice. Maybe it’s teenagers, barely out of high school, fielding ground balls or Class A/AA level players getting on-field instruction from Tom Kelly and Paul Molitor. Then spending time watching the AAA players wander the outfield during batting practice… no more than 20-30 feet from the outfield fence of the Major League practice field… and catching them take occasional glimpses to that adjoining field, almost able to read their minds as they imagine taking that final step toward realizing their dreams. So close, yet so far away.

One thing the Twins do, which I really appreciate as a fan, is put the names on the back of the Spring Training jerseys of their minor leaguers. With 150 or more players on 4-5 different practice fields, you’re going to see several guys wearing the same jersey number. Without a name on the back, as well, most of us would have no clue who we’re watching, even if we’re armed with Seth Stohs’ handy-dandy Prospect Handbook.

Twins Pitchers go through spring drills

Over on the Major League practice field, you may find the Big Leaguers (WITHOUT their names on their practice jerseys… guess we’re supposed to recognize all of them by face and/or number by the time they get to this level) taking infield/outfield practice or maybe the pitching staff will be working on fielding bunts or covering first base on a ground ball to that side of the infield. Drilling… always drilling… over and over. So much that you can’t help but be shocked when one of those same pitchers is late to cover 1B in a July game at Target Field. Then again, if you’re really lucky, you may get the opportunity to be entertained by the pitchers actually taking batting practice. See? There is occasional humor to be found on the practice field. There are also batting cages under the Hammond Stadium seating area, visible from outside the stadium, where you can watch today’s Twins getting in extra hitting practice, under the watchful eyes of the staff which, on any given day, may include former Twins greats like Tony Oliva and Paul Molitor.

You may even decide to save your money and pass on buying tickets for the Twins game that afternoon. Instead, pull up a seat on the 4-5 rows of bleachers behind the chain link “dugouts” of the minor league fields and watch the Twins prospects take on the kids from the Orioles or Red Sox organizations. If you’re lucky, you may even get a close up look at one of the Major Leaguers getting some extra work in with the minor leaguers on a day he’s not scheduled to play with the Twins.

And if you’re an autograph collector, it won’t take you long to figure out most of the kids on these diamonds still think it’s kind of cool to be asked for their autograph. As I write this, I’m looking at a practice ball I picked up during minor league batting practice a couple of years ago… and got signed by Joe Benson, Steve Singleton, BJ Hermsen and others.

Isn’t there a beach or something down there?

Fort Myers beach

Yes… and after making several trips to Spring Training, I finally found my way to Ft. Myers Beach last year. It’s nice. I don’t happen to think it’s as nice as Clearwater Beach, a couple of hours north of there, but if beaches are your thing, I definitely recommend a trip to Ft. Myers Beach. You can catch a trolley in a mall parking lot a couple of miles from the Twins complex that will take you down to the beach and all of the shopping/eating/drinking activities that can be found in that area.

Sanibel Island is just a drive across the Sanibel Causeway (and a $6 toll) away from the Ft. Myers coast, as well. I have to admit that I haven’t been as big a fan of Sanibel Island as a lot of other people, but I think I’m in the minority.  Ft. Myers also has an Imaginarium (kind of a combination museum and aquarium) that I confess I’ve never been to. I’m not sure why I haven’t gone… I actually kind of enjoy aquariums. Maybe one of you will go check it out and let me know how it is?

What about food?

I recommend it. Sometimes, it’s easy to get wrapped up in all the baseball stuff and forget to eat, but eventually you are likely to get hungry. When you do, I strongly recommend eating… preferably somewhere other than Hammond Stadium. You can find the traditional ballpark fare at Hammond, but that’s about it. The food is just one of many differences you’ll notice between Hammond and Target Field.

Fortunately, there are other places to eat in the area that offer much better options. I admit that I tend to look for seafood when I’m down there because we don’t exactly have an abundance of seafood options in Iowa.

LaVelle E. Neal III of the StarTribune has authored an annual blog post listing restaurant recommendations for the area and I’ve seldom been disappointed with the listed places that I’ve tried. I like places that have an outdoor seating area but even the sports bars down there all seem to have those, so they aren’t hard to find. (Shoeless Joe’s and Pott’s Sports Cafe have been my favorites, I suppose, since I keep going back to them.) Keep an eye out, though, for this year’s post by LaVelle.

Aren’t there theme parks or something down there somewhere?

No. You’re probably thinking of Orlando FL. Mickey Mouse and his Disney friends live up there, as do Harry Potter and his buddies at Universal. Orlando is about a 3 and a half hour drive from Ft. Myers. Tampa (two hours or so away) has Busch Gardens which, I’ve been told, is quite a lot of fun if you really need the theme park experience.

There’s also a dog-racing track a few minutes south of Ft. Myers, where you may also find a poker room. I know that’s not exactly a theme park, but hey… I thought I’d mention it.

I think this brings to a close this series of posts. I can’t think of much I haven’t covered at this point, but if you have questions, feel free to leave them in the comment section or click the “Contact Us” link at the top of the screen and drop an email. There isn’t much more for me to say except that I can’t recommend strongly enough a trip to Florida to hang out with our Twins, whether for a day or two or a week or more. You won’t be disappointed.

I’m know looking forward to my trip to Ft. Myers in March and it would be great to see a few of you down there, as well. Let us know if you’re planning to go!

– JC