Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet. The Bowtie brand aired that jingle back in the mid-1970s, tying together elements of Americana in one tidy bundle. Speaking of baseball, it’s almost spring training season for Major League Baseball, which is worthy of an epic road trip along the coast of Florida that could very well also include hot dogs and apple pie.
This time of year, you'll find miles of green Astroturf, junk food, and great baseball from Fort Myers to Dunedin and Orlando to West Palm Beach. Get your tickets and let’s get started.
The spring training experience
Arizona hosts the easy-travel spring training season. Fifteen teams are based in the Phoenix area for spring training, and the longest distance between ballparks is 47 miles. Florida, on the other hand, hosts the other half of the teams in the major leagues and offers a beach route for hours of great driving from game to game. No offense, Arizona Cactus League, but the Florida Grapefruit League has you beat for opportunities to get behind the wheel to cruise.
One benefit of attending spring training games is that the ballparks are much cozier, because they’re using minor league fields for practice. The players are closer, parking is easier, tickets are (usually) cheaper, and the food is almost always a mini version of what they would serve in their big MLB ballparks. Think Old Bay-sprinkled crab fries (Philadelphia Phillies), Killebrew root beer (Minnesota Twins), and pastrami sandwiches (New York Yankees).
If you’re bringing kids, get tickets in an area where they can chase foul balls and home run balls. If an adults-only trip, make sure there’s shade because it gets warm in Florida, even in March.
Skirt the Atlantic Coast
There are a few ways to tackle the Florida spring training scene, and it depends on how much time you have. In 2015, my family attended eight games in six different ballparks in 13 days; it was tons of fun and turned out to be one of the best vacations I’ve ever had. If you like to stay moving, you can squeeze in more than we did or you can base in one city and immerse yourself in the culture of one team.
One way to accomplish the full tour is to start and end in Orlando. If you’re flying in from out of state, Orlando’s airport is large and contains a lot of Disney-loving people, but the rental car choices are plentiful and it’s a solid central point. In fact, the Orlando airport (code MCO) has three rental locations for Hertz alone. Bringing family? Get the Chevy Equinox. If it’s just you and one other person, make a reservation with Avis or Turo for a Corvette. You won’t regret it.
Melbourne Orlando International Airport is an excellent alternative for those who don’t like crowds, gift shops, or Mickey Mouse, and it’s a heck of a lot closer to the coast.
Either way, head south to your first stop: Port St. Lucie, adopted home of the New York Mets and Clover Stadium. Then hug the coast for 41 miles along Highway 1 and A1A toward Jupiter, to see both the Cardinals and the Marlins in Jupiter; both teams share Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium.
From Jupiter, go south another 12 miles to Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. There, you can catch games with the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros. Between Jupiter and Palm Beach, that’s four major league teams within 12 miles with Juno Beach and Riviera Beach providing scenic drive time.
You want more games? We’ve barely scratched the surface. From Palm Beach, I’d highly recommend going a little further south to hop on the Everglades Parkway across the state. Also called Alligator Alley and formally known as Interstate 75, this 70-miles-per-hour toll road is lined with prehistoric-looking gators on both sides.
I’m not exaggerating when I say the alligators are stacked on top of each other behind the fence watching the cars go by. If gators make you nervous (*raises hand*), cut straight across highway 98 to 80.
Cruise the Gulf Coast
On the Gulf Coast side, start with Ft. Myers, spring home of the Red Sox and Minnesota Twins. The Sox play at Jet Blue Park, very close to Southwest Florida International Airport. Before leaving Ft. Myers, promise me you’ll stop at Mario’s Meat Market and Deli, which is a miniature taste of authentic New York/New Jersey treats. I’m talking fresh cannoli, Italian gravy, meatball subs, arancini, and marinated mozzarella.
Straight east nine miles away, the Twins are based at Hammond Stadium, and then you’ll be well positioned to drive northwest toward Port Charlotte to see the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays have the most laid-back stadium in Florida, which makes it a great spot to take a breath.
Finish up the Gulf side by rolling through Sarasota to see the Baltimore Orioles at Ed Smith Stadium. Sarasota is a beautiful sand-edged town along the Gulf Coast that offers a slow cruising road up Lido Key to Longboat Key. Next, stop in to watch the Pittsburgh Pirates play at Lecom Park only 12 miles away in Bradenton. Hit two ballparks in one day, if you're inclined.
Hang on, sports fans; only four teams to go. Cross the big over-water bridge toward St. Petersburg Beach and drive up to Clearwater to see the Phillies, and then on to Dunedin to watch the Toronto Blue Jays. Swing through Tampa, where the Yankees take on their competition at (where else?) George M. Steinbrenner Field. Finally, Lakeland is the last stop on the trail to see the team that represents the Big Three hometown automakers: the Detroit Tigers.
You don't have to like baseball to take this tour, but it is a great excuse to explore. And maybe next time we'll try the Cactus League.
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