A reporter asked me today which was my favorite of all the spring training sites. I told her that I had always been partial to two places that lost spring training this year — Dodgertown in Vero Beach and Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg — and told her why — the history and ambiance of Dodgertown, that great view of Tampa Bay from Al Lang.
But that got me to thinking: How long can I keep saying my favorite spring training site isn't a spring training site anymore, and what then, among the active sites, would now be my favorite?
There are really no bad spring training sites. Among the current inventory of spring training parks and facilities, all but one has been either built or completely overhauled in the last twenty years.
But which one is the best? What makes a spring training site special? Is it the grandeur of the ballpark? The new parks in Glendale (White Sox and Dodgers) and Goodyear (Indians) will certainly enter the conversation as more people visit them; but most discussions of grand spring training stadiums would probably begin with Steinbrenner Field, formerly Legends Field, the Tampa home of the Yankees. Surely Champion Stadium at Walt Disney World is as pretty as they come, its lines and construction evoking parks of the 1920s, with all the 21st century amenities. But as much as the visual evokes the heritage of the game, the damn place keeps changing its name practically every year. It's only a decade old and it's been known officially as Disney Field, Crackerjack Stadium, The Ballpark at Disney's Wide World of Sports, and now Champion Stadium. What kind of heritage can there be a place that changes its name all the time?
The prettiest, most comfortable, most amenity-rich spring training ballpark is probably Brighthouse Networks Field in Clearwater, where the Phillies play. But it sits on one of the ugliest pieces of land in all of Florida, surrounded by high-voltage electrical wires and a particularly busy and soulless piece of U.S. Route 19.
So, is the scenery beyond the outfield fences important? Tough to beat the Cactus League parks then. Virtually every park looks out upon a mountain range, and in Tempe Diablo Stadium, the mountain looms just past the left field fence, sorta' like the wall at Fenway Park only five time higher.
Is history important? With this year's shuttering of Dodgertown, Winter Haven and Al Lang, that really leaves only two choices. Fort Lauderdale Stadium was built for the Yankees in 1962 and has been home to the Orioles since the Yankees left for Tampa in '96. It's a window on old-time spring training, which is exactly why it's doomed. It doesn't have the clubhouse, strength-training, or medical-rehab facilities to support a modern spring training, and it doesn't even have room for the Orioles minor leaguers, who train across the state in Sarasota. So the Orioles will be leaving Fort Lauderdale for somewhere, maybe as early as next year.
That will leave Hi Corbett Field in Tucson as the last of spring training's historical parks. Home to the Rockies now, it was built in the 1920s and has hosted spring training every year since 1947, when Bill Veeck brought the Indians there. It's where the spring training scenes from the movie Major League were filmed; that alone makes it worth the visit.
How much weight to you give to the spirit of the fans when it comes to making a place special? Every team likes to claim that its fans are the best. Cubs fans and Red Sox fans are probably the most famous, but for pure unadulterated, demonstrative affection, it would be tough to top the sea of Cardinal red that fans wear to Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter to watch St. Louis play.
Is the neighborhood important — you know, the old real estate maxim of location, location, location. Then it's probably got to be Scottsdale Stadium, right in the heart of downtown, just a couple of blocks from the bars and restaurants of Old Town Scottsdale. It's spring training's only neighborhood ballpark, and what a neighborhood!
As I've traveled about spring training the last three years, I can't tell you how many different places I heard someone say: This is the best complex in all of spring training. Or: We wouldn't trade spring training sites with anyone. Or: There's no place better for getting a team ready for the season. Or: I wouldn't come anywhere else for spring training.
So bring out all the clichés: Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. Home is where the heart is — or maybe, more accurately: the heart is where home is. The best spring training facility? It's really quite simple. That's going to be the place where your team plays.