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Grapefruit League offers plenty of fun in the sun

Grapefruit League offers plenty of fun in the sun

Grapefruit League offers plenty of fun in the sun
Spring Training in Florida's Grapefruit League, a tradition since the 1890s, offers a multitude of treats for connoisseurs, sun worshipers and casual fans alike.

Fifteen Major League teams train in Florida, 12 of them along or essentially near the east and west coastlines and three in the center of the state. With so much available, fans can easily take a hot-dog-filled journey that suits their own schedules and preferences.

Tigers: Joker Marchant Stadium, Lakeland
Joker Marchant Stadium, home of the Tigers since it opened in 1966, is the second-oldest ballpark in the Grapefruit League. No team has called one city its Spring Training home as long as the Tigers, who began going to Lakeland in 1934, and with the exception of a few years in Evansville, Ind., during World War II, have been in Lakeland every year since.

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The ballpark and the Tigertown complex sit on the site of what was Lodwick Field, a pilot training airbase during World War II. Three of the hangars from the old base remain standing and in use by the club and the Lakeland Parks and Recreation department.

It doesn't take long to realize how Lakeland got its name. Sitting in the upper reaches of the ballpark offers a view of Lake Parker, the largest of 38 named lakes in the city, and one of the many waterfront parks that define its natural beauty. Farther south sits Lake Hollingsworth and Florida Southern College, whose campus was designed by renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Other features include Hollis Gardens, an artistic mix of gardens and fountains located downtown.

Remodeled and made to look like Comerica Park in Detroit, this is a tradition-rich place to watch baseball.

Braves: Champion Stadium, Lake Buena Vista
Champion Stadium has been the Braves' Spring Training home since 1998. Located within minutes of each of Walt Disney World's many attractions, the stadium is one of the centerpiece items located within ESPN's Wide World of Sports Complex. The 9,500-seat stadium includes four luxury boxes, multiple open-air suites and many of the same amenities found during the regular season at Major League ballparks.

The grassy berm located down the left-field line and beyond the left-field wall provides great sight lines and a relaxing atmosphere for fans who purchase standing-room-only tickets. Fans also can enjoy the comfort of stadium seating within this two-tier stadium, which hosted first-round games in the 2006 World Baseball Classic.

The PlayStation Pavilion located adjacent to the stadium provides an opportunity for children and adults to play the newest and best PS3 games available. Fans are also just a short walk away from the arenas, tracks and fields of the Wide World of Sports Complex, which includes those for lacrosse, soccer, football, softball and other activities.

Fans can enjoy the many dining and lodging options provided by Walt Disney World and the city of Orlando. Universal Studios and Sea World are also located within 15 minutes of where the Braves train.

Astros: Osceola County Stadium, Kissimmee
A short drive away are the Astros, who have been playing spring games in Kissimmee at Osceola County Stadium, the smallest ballpark in the circuit with a capacity of 5,300, since 1984.

If you plan to watch the Astros, be prepared to wear some mouse ears. The ballpark is only a few miles from Disney World and Universal Studios and all the attractions that are in that area. Fans can easily stay close to the theme parks and find themselves a short drive away from Grapefruit League baseball.

Even closer to Osceola County Stadium is Gatorland, a 110-acre family-themed park with thousands of alligators and crocodiles on display. Along the way there is no shortage of miniature golf courses and other smaller attractions in the immediate area, providing plenty of fun for families.

Nationals: Space Coast Stadium, Viera
Moving to the east coast, Space Coast Stadium is not far from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral -- hence its name and the space theme that is echoed in every corner of the ballpark. It has been the home of the Nationals/Expos since 2003.

Mets: Digital Domain Park, Port St. Lucie
Digital Domain Park has been the home of the Mets since it opened in 1988. It's a replica of Shea Stadium, the team's former home in New York.

No visit is complete without sampling a Taco-In-A-Helmet, the stadium's unique take on Mexican fare. A recent addition to the park is a party deck in right field, giving fans an option in addition to the tiki bar down the left-field line. Bagel Brothers sandwiches are also recommended.

In addition to the town's own array of establishments, Port St. Lucie is a 20-minute drive to the shops and restaurants of Jensen Beach and Stuart. Another 45 minutes down the coast is West Palm Beach, the northernmost of South Florida's three major cities.

Drive inland from Port St. Lucie and within an hour you'll reach Lake Okeechobee, one of the largest freshwater lakes in the country. Areas around Okeechobee offer camping, biking, hiking and other outdoor activities.

Cardinals and Marlins: Roger Dean Stadium, Jupiter
Built in 1998, Roger Dean Stadium is the only shared ballpark in the Grapefruit League. It features field boxes, loge boxes, bleachers, a grass berm, and luxury skybox seating. It seats approximately 6,600 and another 200 fans can spread out on a blanket and get a closer look of the game from the Grass Berm, located just in front of the Party Deck in right field.

If you're taking in a game, you won't want to miss the gameday experience in downtown Abacoa. Nearby restaurants and sports bars are filled with fans throughout Grapefruit League season. All of it is within walking distance to the stadium.

Nearby, fans can check out the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse and Museum, which is located in a restored World War II housing quarters building. The southern-most Spring Training site on the east coast, Juno Beach and West Palm Beach are also easy drives from Jupiter, as is MacArthur Beach State Park. The state park is open seven days a week and offers visitors the opportunity to kayak, fish, bird-watch and snorkel.

The Marlins moved from Viera to Jupiter in 2003. When they became the Miami Marlins in 2012, the walls were painted with the team's new logos and colors.

Twins: Hammond Stadium, Fort Myers
Built in 1991, Hammond Stadium is located in the Lee County Sports Complex. The ballpark, which has a capacity of 7,500, is also the home of the Twins' Class A Advanced affiliate, the Fort Myers Miracle.

The exterior of the ballpark is modeled after Churchill Downs, the famous Louisville racetrack, complete with a fountain and rows of parking that are named after former Twins greats such as Bert Blyleven, Tony Oliva, Harmon Killebrew, Jim Kaat, Kirby Puckett and Kent Hrbek.

Fans looking to get some sun can head to nearby Fort Myers Beach, or drive across the causeway to Sanibel Island or Captiva Island. Another popular area is Fort Myers' historic downtown, which has 69 historic buildings featuring various shops and restaurants.

Red Sox: JetBlue Park at Fenway South, Fort Myers
A mere eight miles away is Boston's ballpark that opened in 2012. Inside it resembles Fenway Park, complete with a Green Monster wall in left field upon which fans can sit, just as they can in Boston. The rest of the outfield is constructed to resemble Fenway as well.

The concept -- replicating Fenway Park but incorporating a Southwest Florida feel -- has become a living, breathing reality. Fans will feel baseball tradition, but with the soothing comfort of palm trees in the backdrop. Boston's new Spring Training stadium is state of the art. There are six practice fields surrounding it.

Tradition is everywhere, including a Ted Williams statue just outside the ballpark, and glossy photos inside the main concourse that chronicle the greatest moments in Red Sox history.

Fans who come to Red Sox camp won't go hungry. There are eateries all over Fort Myers, particularly at the Gulf Coast Town Center, an outdoor shopping area about five miles south of the ballpark.

Rays: Charlotte Sports Park, Port Charlotte
Among the interesting features of Charlotte Sports Park, built in 1998, is the seating, which affords several options, including 5,000 fixed seats and two berm areas. And in left-center field is a full liquor tiki bar that has a seating capacity for up to 69 fans at a time.

For those with children, the "Kid's Clubhouse," located behind the berm seating in the right-field area, features a playground area.

And fans don't have to miss any of the action to walk around the ballpark. A 19,000-square-foot wooden concourse stretches around the outfield to provide 360-degree pedestrian circulation and impressive views of the field and bullpens.

Orioles: Ed Smith Stadium, Sarasota
The crown jewel of the Grapefruit League, Ed Smith Stadium was in need of an extreme makeover and fortunately it got one, to the tune of a $31.2 million expenditure, after the spring season of 2010, the Orioles' first after leaving their previous spring home in Fort Lauderdale.

The revamped ballpark, which features Spanish-style architecture, has received rave reviews. The Orioles' retired numbers hang from under the press box and suite area, and a quote from Cal Ripken Sr. is displayed on the outside. Fans can enjoy shaded areas over their seats or go out to the left-field lawn for a more laid-back atmosphere, with concessions ranging from the traditional hot dog to crab cakes for a decidedly Baltimore feel.

The seats are refurbished ones from Oriole Park at Camden Yards, while the three air-conditioned suites are numbered 66, 70, and 83, corresponding to the team's three World Series championships. The park also features 100 high-definition televisions and a high-definition LED video board in the outfield.

Pirates: McKechnie Field, Bradenton
McKechnie Field, originally built in 1923 and renovated in 1991-93, is named for Hall of Fame manager Bill McKechnie, a Pittsburgh native and former Bradenton resident. McKechnie managed the Pirates to the World Series championship in 1925. The Bucs have trained and played their spring games at this site since 1969.

Having received a complete facelift in 2008, McKechnie Field, the senior facility of the Grapefruit League, still retains all the charm of its history. Eight new light towers outline the park and the visitors' clubhouse has been rebuilt, but the historical façade of the grandstand still showcases the vintage ballpark look.

The renovations included new grounds, wide access ramps, concession stands, kiosks and improved sight lines. The palm-tree-lined park features 1920s Spanish-mission style architure, using masonry, stucco and structural steel materials. A public plaza and walkway around the park were also added. Inside McKechnie, fans were moved closer to the field by expanding seating capacity from approximately 4,200 to more than 6,500. The ballpark is often sold out for Spring Training games.

Phillies: Bright House Field, Clearwater
Built in 2004, Bright House Field is the second-newest ballpark in the Grapefruit League. Since it's a replica of Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, Phillies fans should feel right at home there.

Bright House Field might be the best Spring Training ballpark in Florida. It has an enjoyable atmosphere and the fans continue their experience after the game listening to live music at the Tiki Pavilion in left field. Seats are available beyond the left-field wall, which is a great way to watch the game.

Lenny's is located practically right across the street, and it's a must for Phillies fans looking for breakfast. It's advisable to arrive early before a game, especially on weekends. There's often a line outside the restaurant.

Clearwater Beach, on the Gulf of Mexico, is among the best beaches in Florida. And there are plenty of fine restaurants along the beach as well, so there should never be a shortage of finding something tasty to eat or good to drink.

Blue Jays: Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, Dunedin
Florida Auto Exchange Stadium has been the Blue Jays' Spring Training facility since it was built in 1990. The 5,509-seat ballpark includes a press box level with air-conditioned skyboxes and three picnic areas.

Dunedin has hosted the Blue Jays since their inception in 1977 and also is home for the Class A Dunedin Blue Jays and Dunedin Falcons High School baseball team. It was previously ranked as one of the top five places to watch a Spring Training game by Sports Illustrated.

The town of Dunedin is a short ferry ride from Caladesi Island, which has been voted as one of the best beaches in the world. It also is located along the Fred Marquis Pinellas bike trail, a paved 34-mile path that extends from St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs. Other famous attractions in the area can be found in downtown Dunedin, which features more than 100 privately owned shops and restaurants. The Clearwater Marine Aquarium is also a short drive from the ballpark and is home to Winter, the dolphin with a prosthetic tail that was featured in the film "Dolphin Tale."

Yankees: George M. Steinbrenner Field, Tampa
Originally called Legends Field, George M. Steinbrenner Field has the same dimensions as Yankee Stadium, down to the inch. It was insisted to be so by the Boss, who, as the story goes, phoned the Bronx from Tampa during its construction and had an employee go to the outfield wall with a tape measure during a driving snowstorm, just to be sure the measurements were correct.

The Yankees have made improvements to the complex over the years, including adding the right-field Tampa Tribune Deck party pavilion, where fans can dine and soak up sunshine during games. Built in 1996, it is the largest ballpark in the Grapefruit League, with a capacity of 10,000.

A statue of Steinbrenner was erected outside the home-plate entrance after his 2010 passing, an exact replica of which stands inside Gate 6 at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees also have their own version of Monument Park outside the field's entrance, featuring all of the club's retired numbers and plaques about each player's career. Other entertainment venues within close distance of Steinbrenner Field include Raymond James Stadium, home of the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the highly rated Lowry Park Zoo and Busch Gardens amusement park.

Walter Villa is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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