I was fortunate enough to be able spend last week in Florida to catch three of the final games of 2019 Spring Training. The appeal of seeing several games over a short time frame at different ballparks that are geographically close for a much more intimate crowd at a lower price point makes the trek to the other side of this country worth it. Before we jump into the regular season, I wanted to take a moment and share some photos I took in hopes that they, along with some thoughts and observations, adequately capture the magic of fake Florida baseball.
The first thing I’d like to reiterate once again is how different Dunedin Stadium is than the rest of the ballparks in the area. The ballpark is plopped right in between a library and the end of a small town main street, and the best parking is either on a neighbor’s front lawn for $10 or at the tavern down the street which offers a free beer with paid parking. Everything from the food prep on open barbecues by the entrance to the tiny, dimly lit gift shop feels like an entire community pitching in to help the local team. There’s a certain charm to that, but in comparison, Dunedin Stadium was really lacking.
The one major downside is the inability to walk around the ballpark behind the outfield. Not only did this really limit the attendance as they cannot offer general admission tickets, but ballpark goers are really missing out some of the best experiences that are unique to Spring Training games. Not being able to sit on the grassy berm and watch kids run around chasing home run balls, or stand at a tiki bar and observe the pitchers warming up is something that has been sorely missing.
The good news is most of this appears to be in the works with the $81M worth of renovations that are already underway. While a good portion of this money will go toward the training center and things that are out of the public eye, the ballpark should much more closely resemble the others in the area while still maintaining their quiet neighborhood feel.
The Wednesday afternoon game versus the Braves was fairly packed. It was exciting to see a strong lineup from Atlanta even though their home base is two hours away in Orlando. Former Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos darted back and forth between the dugout as his team squeezed out a 8-7 win. It also happened to be a giveaway day, so we were treated to custom Dunedin pop sockets.
There were three players who received the strongest amount of applause from a hearty crowd: Dalton Pompey, Rowdy Tellez, and Kevin Pillar. Pillar chased a bunch of birds from a tree he launched a go ahead 3-run homer into early on, which certainly contributed to the wrath the third base ump heard when he called Pillar out on a close play at 3rd later in the game.
The other highlights of the game included Teoscar Hernandez hitting a 2-run bomb to straight center field, and David Paulino striking out all three batters he faced.
The Phillies’ ballpark, Spectrum Field, is my new favorite Florida ballpark. It had the grandeur of Yankee Stadium without the feeling of being in enemy territory. There was grass berm all around the outfield, and general admission tickets to sit there were $14. The Phanatic racing around on his ATV was so much fun watch. It was very windy that day, and 10 baseballs left the ballpark. We saw Bryce Harper’s first homer as a Philly, then a few innings later, we saw his second.
One of the highlights for me was the ability to stand beside the Blue Jays’ bullpen and watch the players warm up two feet away from you. It has extra appeal if your favorite player happens to be the starting catcher (hypothetically speaking of course).
Every staff member in the Phillies park was also incredibly friendly and more than willing to go out of their way to make sure you had a good time. Even the Phillies fans were pleasant to us. I mean, they just got Bryce Harper for eternity - how unhappy could they really be?
Late in the game, Billy McKinney hit a home run very close to where Harper’s second one landed, that is, way over the walkway and into the swampy area behind the park. Phillies staff members were wandering around trying to find the ball, but didn’t wish to enter the water for obvious Florida reasons. McKinney’s ball, which was found on dry ground, was recovered.
The Friday night game at home versus Baltimore was the only win we saw. It was also the only night home game of the season, and last the big league team would play in before the renovations. Aaron Sanchez started, and he fell behind quite a lot but pitched six innings of one hit ball. Brandon Drury and Justin Smoak both homered, and the Jays shut out the Orioles 4-0.
The night ended very suitably with a fireworks display.
Despite the myriad of injuries that hit the Blue Jays during this stretch of games, Spring Training held great excitement and anticipation for the upcoming season. The dedication shown by fans to travel far and spend their hard earned dollars to support this team during a down year with the consensus top prospect in baseball sidelined is not something that goes unnoticed. The Blue Jays will most certainly not be a top contender in 2019, but at the very least, they should be far from boring.