When the players break out the bats and balls, it's time for fans to reach for the sunscreen and road map. All over the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues, little dots of towns spring to life for spring training. For rookie visitors, here's a look at where to go.
In Florida, start your trip in:
Get there early this year to watch Detroit take PFP - pitchers' fielding practice. After the Tigers put on a Bad News Bears clinic in the World Series, manager Jim Leyland personally will oversee these drills. The Tabbies first came to this central Florida city in 1934 and, except during World War II, have been here ever since. The parking lot is full of Michigan license plates at charming Joker Marchant Stadium, where fans always chuckle when the temperature back home is announced right before the first pitch.
Then maybe drive a couple of hours over to the east coast for:
Officially, the complex is called Dodgertown. To those who make the pilgrimage every March, it's baseball Mecca. Think of it as a petting zoo, set up since 1948 so players can mingle with fans and sign autographs. Just be sure to move off the path when Tom Lasorda comes riding by in his golf cart. Until recently, Holman Stadium didn't have fences. Instead, balls would go rolling over embankments and overheated outfielders would dodge the palm trees to chase them. The ballpark has open-air benches for the players and only a dozen rows or so for spectators. And be sure to grab a Dodger Dog. Get there soon, too, because the Dodgers plan to move their camp to Arizona in 2009. Yummy hint: Just past the golf course, there's a little shack called the Quik Snak Family Restaurant. Go in, order a Big Beef and giant chocolate shake, and enjoy.
If you have a day, head south on I-95, cut across Alligator Alley and drive to:
The Red Sox train at City of Palms Park, and the Twins are 20 minutes away at the Lee County Sports Complex. It's an easy hop to catch a day-night doubleheader and get an early line on whether Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, Manny Ramirez or David Ortiz will be this year's AL MVP. That is, if tickets are available. Spring training gets more and more jammed every year, to the point where scalpers show up for Boston games. On the drive between the camps, get off crowded Route 41 and decompress by watching birds at a wildlife preserve.
Maybe then zip up the Gulf Coast past Sarasota, Bradenton and St. Pete for:
Not the easiest place to find, but worth the effort. Slow down going across the causeway from Tampa to let the pelicans keep pace, drive past the Phillies' complex in Clearwater and you're almost there. Grouper sandwiches are the specialty at Toronto's ballpark and, yes, they take Canadian money. Scouts in big Panama hats crowd behind home plate, and, being so close to the beach, the warning track is made of crushed seashells. For a postgame dessert, walk across the street to Iris' restaurant for a nice slice of goober - a.k.a. peanut butter - pie.
For fans who prefer the desert, head to Arizona and open up in:
In an era of spiffy new spring training sites, the Rockies train at an old-school stadium that opened in 1937 and has undergone three renovations in the last 15 years. Tucked in the middle of an old neighborhood, Hi Corbett Field holds more than 9,000 fans in comfort, with fewer than 600 seats being bleachers.
About two hours north is:
Arrive around 9 a.m. for the free workouts and you might see Barry Bonds taking his cuts. Balls tend to fly in Arizona because of the altitude and light air - that's why exhibition games here are often 13-10 slugfests. Once the Giants start playing, maybe hold off on the hot dog and beer for an unusual alternative: About a five-minute walk from Scottsdale Stadium is a hospital with a cafeteria full of tasty, healthy fare. But if you crave a steak, get over to the Pink Pony. It's been around forever and serves up baseball history. If it's easy to imagine Dizzy Dean, Ty Cobb and Joe DiMaggio being inside, it's because they once were.
Finish by taking a drive to the northwest and winding up in:
Texas and Kansas City share the complex, which opened in 2003 and was designed by the same firm that built Camden Yards, Coors Field and many of baseball's prettiest parks. The backdrop is beautiful, with mountains in the distance, and there's an extra treat - impromptu flyovers by fighter jets from nearby Luke Air Force Base on training flights, often in dual formation. And be it camps in Mesa, Maryvale or Tempe, it's always fun to see the "snowbirds" directing traffic and behind the counter at concession stands. Many of them are retirees who put on a cap and come to work at spring training, eager to make it a fun experience for all.