Beyond the minutiae of baseball, a world in which statistics rule and every at-bat is a game within a game, there is a magical place called spring training, which is much more about ambiance, sun and fun—and Florida.
From Dean Dogs to racing presidents, spring training baseball is uniquely appealing in Palm Beach County, where Jupiter’s Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium and FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches in West Palm Beach host four major league teams and 25 percent of spring training games, according to a Palm Beach County Sports Commission report.
The Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals call Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium their spring training home, and the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals make camp at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches.
“Travel and tourism is the No. 1 industry in Florida and No. 1 in Palm Beach County,” he says, “so that means you have to be darn good at customer service if you want to maximize your strongest economic engine. Both of those facilities maximize the return on the dollar.”
The experiences at these facilities result in a combined annual economic impact of about $114 million, according to an analysis by the Palm Beach County Sports Commission. It is a significant slice of the $687 million of economic impact for the state as reported by the Florida Sports Foundation. The impact study includes jobs, wages and tourism spending.
While spring training is step one for potential most valuable players such as the Astros’ Jose Altuve or the Cardinals’ Matt Carpenter, Grady says the ballparks are staffed by everyday MVPs.
“The ushers and staff who work those facilities are the most outstanding people,” he says. “Many are retirees who know and love the communities.
“I listen as they answer the questions of the fans—how to get to the waterpark, airboat rides, where to go and eat, how to get to the beach—and they are just the friendliest and most helpful representatives to the fans. I have to stand back and say, ‘mission accomplished.’”
Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium was built in 1997. The spring training home of both the Cardinals and Marlins is a common ground for uncommon teams.
The Marlins are immersed in nine straight losing seasons and are in the throes of another rebuilding project. The Cards almost always contend and have strung together 11 straight winning seasons. The prospectus is enhanced by this year’s addition of perennial slugger/first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. Despite starkly different paths, the Marlins and Cards have both won two World Series championships during the past 22 years.
The stadium in which these two paths cross is a special destination for vacationers from St. Louis and to the expansive Miami fan base.
“For nearly two decades, the Marlins have been fortunate to call Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium our home,” says Claude Delorme, the Marlins executive vice president of operations and events. “The ballpark and surrounding complex are in such a convenient location for our organization—just a short drive from Miami—and for our fans.”
The 6,800-seat stadium includes space for an additional 200 fans in the outfield grass berm area. The stadium offers views for fans at picnics, traditional seats, the Bullpen Club’s bar-style seating or the right-field “party deck.”
Among the stadium’s standout features, Delorme says he likes the “Cassidy Cool Zone.”
Stadium Media Relations Coordinator Andrew Miller enjoys his workplace. “It’s a prime location for spring training, always 75 degrees Fahrenheit, and a unique atmosphere in a vibrant community,” he says.
Plus, he notes there are six backfields per team for fans to view practices, including some spaces that are specialized for outfield or infield only.
The vast concession menu includes one particularly enormous item: the signature Dean Dog. This one-third-pound grilled frankfurter, which Miller says “is a meal,” is original to the stadium. The Dean Dog days roll on throughout the summer.
When spring training ends, the stadium gets busier. “This is the only stadium in the country to host two minor league teams at the same facility,” Miller says.
Depending on scheduling, either the Jupiter Hammerheads or Palm Beach Cardinals play a home game every day of the Florida State League regular season.
FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches is a more than $135-million facility and is “pure and simple, the newest car on the street,” Grady says. “It is brand spanking new and has a wow factor.”
There is no vagueness about who uses this facility, which opened in 2017. Two 30-foot statues of team logos distinctly mark the homes of the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros.
The quality of play is at a high level. The Astros are but two years removed from their first World Series championship season. That is noted in a left field logo. The Nationals, due to a strong pitching staff led by Max Scherzer, remain contenders.
Two years ago, the Nationals left Viera and the Astros exited Kissimmee. Both of those facilities are considered to be excellent, so their new destination had to be greater. Ballpark of the Palm Beaches is a 160-acre complex that features a fan-friendly stadium with room for 7,700 (including a picnic berm) as its centerpiece, along with six practice fields per team.
This season will also have several fun events at the ballpark for fans, including a special St. Patrick’s Day celebration, Seniors Stroll the Bases, Pre-Game Catch on the Field, six Fireworks Nights, Bark at the Park events, Signature Sundays and numerous giveaways.
A Washington Nationals spokesperson notes that West Palm Beach is a vibrant city and has been well-received by the entire Nationals organization, stating that FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches has become a destination in the local community, and feels like a second home.
Fans may enjoy games while seated in the shade, from a 360-degree wrap-around concourse, on the Banana Boat Lawn, within suites or on party decks.
The concessions are as varied as the Capitol Hill Grill, the Lone Star Cantina or the Craft Corner with 32 craft beers on tap.
Racing presidents called the Rushmore Four (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt) are an in-game treat for fans at Nationals games in Washington. The West Palm Beach version of the race matches “retired” large-headed mascots of William Taft, Herbert Hoover and Calvin Coolidge.
Astros Senior Manager of Communications Steve Grande says their team’s mascot Orbit is present at all games as well. But if uniforms are more your taste than costumes, Grande adds “there is fan access on the practice field. Morning workouts are open to the public and give fans close access to our players as they prep for that day’s game and the regular season.”
FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches has set itself up as a destination for all seasons. It hosts elite tournaments, community walks, corporate functions, concerts and festivals among other events. Five athletic fields offer the opportunity to host major soccer and lacrosse events.
The campus includes a walking trail, a 12-acre city park with a playground, green space, lighted basketball courts and pavilions, as well as seven multi-purpose fields for youth sports.
Regardless of whether one indulges in a Dean Dog or cheers on the portly William Taft caricature in the ex-presidents’ race, the dedicated and casual baseball fans will find the best spring training has to offer in Palm Beach County.
Lewis Brinson’s Homecoming
“You can go home again,” say most third base coaches in defiance of Thomas Wolfe’s 1930s novel. So too says Miami Marlins center fielder Lewis Brinson.
The 24-year-old grew up in Fort Lauderdale and graduated from Coral Springs High School. He was a first-round draft pick by the Texas Rangers in 2012, broke into the majors with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2017 and returned to South Florida last year. He’s dealt with injuries and is looking for a breakout season after compiling a modest .199 average last season.
“I grew up a Marlins fan. It is literally a dream come true to be playing for them now and to be able to represent my hometown team on the field,” Brinson says. “It’s the close proximity to home. I don’t have to worry about moving from home to Arizona and then back every spring, like I did before I played for the Marlins. And it’s also nice that my family is so close and can come up here to see me.”
Brinson’s opportunity is as unique as the setting offered by the Marlins spring training home in Jupiter.
“It is very rare in baseball that a family can take a short drive from their home and see their favorite team play at spring training, and can get up-close-and-personal with their favorite players in the unique atmosphere and proximity that spring training provides,” says Claude Delorme, the Marlins executive vice president of operations and events.
On Spring Training Past
By Bernard McCormick
World War I was just getting serious. Woodrow Wilson, having taken over the presidency from William Howard Taft, was trying to figure out what to do about it. Jackie Robinson was minus 4 years of age. He would not come along until 1919, a year after the Great War ended. Florida, at least the part that was civilized, was only about half the occupied geography it is today. The southeast coastal cities were mostly infants. Fort Lauderdale had just been incorporated as a city. It was 1915, and a baseball field, which would be named for Jackie Robinson decades later, had just been built. Like its namesake, Jackie Robinson Ballpark in Daytona Beach would one day be a hall of fame site, on the national historic register, as the oldest Florida place where baseball spring training would be played. It did not actually host spring training until years later, but it was there when the time came.
As with most of the spring training fields, which followed over the next several decades, Jackie Robinson Ballpark no longer hosts a major league team. The last team to use it was the Montreal Expos in 1980. It honors Robinson because in 1946, when segregation was still the order for most of the south, Robinson was starring for a Dodgers minor league affiliate in Daytona when they played the Brooklyn Dodgers in an exhibition game. It was a first integrated game involving a big league team. Robinson officially broke the big league’s racial barrier when he moved up to the Dodgers the next season.
For years, Florida was the only game in town for spring training, but as baseball expanded westward, Arizona, with its Cactus League, became a competitor to the Grapefruit League. Today all but a few of the original Florida training fields are still used, but not by big league teams. The lesser fields of dreams host college and minor league teams. Newer facilities, which often look like HO gauge versions of the big league ballparks, have appeared in towns that hardly existed when spring training first discovered the Sunshine State. The southeast coast, which once had a half-dozen major league training sites, including two of the most famous, is now down to only three.
The two newest, covered in the main story, are both in Palm Beach County. A bit farther north, Port St. Lucie has First Data Field (1988), which has been home from the beginning to the New York Mets.
Two of the facilities that had the most impact on their communities no longer have major league tenants. Dodgertown in Vero Beach is a unique facility and still an active venue with college and some foreign teams. Now known as Vero Beach Sports Village, it occupies 67 acres and still has villas that were once filled with veterans and rookies for one of baseball’s legendary franchises. Holman Field was unusual in that it had no outfield fences. There were stands along the foul lines, but in the outfield, fans used to sit on the grassy embankment surrounding the field. A row of palm trees had painted yellow markers halfway up the trunks and the umpire judged a home run if it passed above the paint. It was so popular with Brooklyn fans that many people later retired in Vero after getting to know the area through the Dodgers.
Bobby McCarthy, owner of the popular Bobby’s Restaurant, just off the beach, recalls the days when Dodgers blue dominated the community. His restaurant featured photos of the team and was a magnet for players and fans alike.
“We opened in 1981, and the Dodgers won the World Series that year and again in ’88,” he says. “There’s no question that Dodgertown made the town and our restaurant a go-to place. We still see Ron Perranoski (former Dodgers pitcher) because he lives here. But the Dodgers left 14 years ago, and new people who moved in the last 10 years don’t even know the Dodgers were here.“
Similarly, if not on such an intimate scale, Fort Lauderdale was for more than 30 years identified with the New York Yankees. When opened in 1962, Little Yankee Stadium was one of the first of the modern spring training sites, with a contemporary design and sprawling locker rooms. Yankee greats of that era were popular figures around town; some became winter residents.
The popular Yankee Clipper Hotel, now the B Ocean Resort, took its name from Yankee great Joe DiMaggio’s nickname. The Yanks also had a minor league team using the field. Modern it may have been in its day, but it did not have room for surrounding training fields and facilities that teams desired in later years. When the Yankees left in 1993, the Boston Red Sox and later Baltimore Orioles kept a major league presence until 2009. Today, renamed Fort Lauderdale Stadium, it is used mostly for soccer events.
The Dodgers left Vero Beach after 60 years at Dodgertown. The Yankees abandoned Fort Lauderdale after 33 years. There is no guarantee of community loyalty when it comes to spring training. There are, however, examples of long relationships. The Detroit Tigers came to Lakeland’s Henley Field in 1934 and are still there, although they play now at the newer Joker Marchant Stadium. The Philadelphia Phillies put Clearwater on the baseball map when they began training at Jack Russell Stadium in 1955. Sixty-four years later in 2004, the Phils made their spring home in Clearwater at the more modern Bright House Networks Field, now Spectrum Field.