Richard Justice

Get ready to savor Spring Training

Intimate vibes remain, but now there are better ballparks, regional food and drink

Get ready to savor Spring Training

This is what people like me have said for years about Spring Training: It's a state of mind.

Optimism abounds. Cynicism melts away. Spring Training is a time of hope and possibility, and that spirit will be ingrained in the game forever.

Spring Training also provides a unique view of your favorite team. You're allowed a close-up of the back fields as players bounce from drill to drill, getting their work in while occasionally chatting up fans.

Maybe it's an opportunity to see the next Clayton Kershaw throw a bullpen session before he's ever thrown a pitch in the Majors.

This intimacy -- and the warm, sunny weather -- are two reasons a Spring Training visit is on every baseball fan's bucket list.

Here's what has changed in recent years: almost everything.

You can still watch Kershaw throw a bullpen session or see the Mets pitchers do their fielding drills.

Those things will never change. Spring Training these days is more than that. Ballparks are better, food and drink spectacularly good, and we'll see the latest and greatest first-hand later this month with the unveiling of The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, the new Grapefruit League home of the Astros and Nationals, which is sure to take your breath away.

Once, you tolerated creaky old ballparks because you were close enough to say hello to the players and could get a real feel for the sights and sounds of a Major League game.

Ballparks still have that intimacy, even though one of them -- Sloan Park, home of the Cubs in Mesa, Ariz. -- holds 15,000.

Fans take in a Spring Training game at Sloan Park, home of the Cubs.(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Speaking of the Cubs, no Spring Training experience offers a glimpse of this new world better than their park.

It has sleek, clean architecture and is within walking distance of the Cubs' practice fields. It also has an assortment of Wrigley Field touches, beginning with a replica of the ballpark's sign out front.

But Sloan Park's brilliant touches begin with the outfield berm in which families can make a day of it.

And a few steps from that berm are the food trucks lined up serving gourmet mac and cheese, designer sandwiches, and more items.

You want the usual ballpark fare? Sure, you can grab a Windy City Dog and relax in a box seat.

To spend an hour watching baseball past the right-field fence at one of the nearby picnic tables with a craft beer and a great lunch is the complete spring experience of 2017.

One of these days -- I swear this is going to happen -- we're going to look up and see Cubs manager Joe Maddon turning his lineup card over to his coaching staff and sampling the food trucks.

There's something like this happening all over Arizona and Florida. The Pirates have a cool thing going at McKechnie Field, which opened for business in 1923.

If you want to understand Spring Training's history, there's no better place. No ballpark has closer seats to home plate, and the structure looks essentially the same as the one in which everyone from Babe Ruth to Ted Williams to Roberto Clemente played.

And the Pirates have done a wonderful job of adding fan-friendly touches, most notably an outfield deck perfect for spending an afternoon.

Homesick for a touch of Pittsburgh? Grab a cold one from Rivertowne Brewing.

McKechnie Field, Spring Training home of the Pirates, opened in 1923.(AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

The Red Sox have captured some of that same vibe in their new digs, JetBlue Park. Lobster roll? Yep, got those.

There are food trucks and craft beers along with Fenway Franks. What the Red Sox have done is construct a park that combines modern design with an interior that has some of the best touches of Fenway Park, most notably the Green Monster.

This is Spring Training in 2017. You want garlic fries like the ones you get in San Francisco? Scottsdale Stadium has 'em.

Other ballparks have local flavors, from fish tacos (Padres) and crab cakes (Orioles) to cheesesteaks (Phillies) and brats (Brewers).

In short, go if you can. It's the ritual of starting fresh just like always. Now, though, it's way more than that.

Richard Justice is a columnist for You can follow him on Twitter @richardjustice. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.