The most popular spring training park


by Joe Mock

To provide material for articles that I would be writing for the USA TODAY Spring Training Preview, I asked ReviewTrackers, a data-mining firm in Chicago, if they would do a research project. As they had done in 2017 with the regular-season parks of Major League Baseball (and I wrote this article about those results), I wanted them to examine online comments written by folks who had attended spring-training exhibitions. They agreed.

A couple of months later, Max Schleicher of ReviewTrackers informed me that they had completed their research on 36,000 user reviews by attendees of exhibition games. They summed up the findings in a wonderful paper called Voice of the Fan, which you can view on their website.

The report revealed their findings and provided context to the results by giving examples of actual online comments that supported why fans feel the way they do about the 23 spring-training ballparks. The report was fascinating. And the results surprised me.

As someone who has scrutinized every one of the 23 spring-training complexes, I expected the newer (i.e., more expensive) complexes like Salt River Fields in Arizona and The Fitteam Ballpark of the Palm Beaches (it just adopted this new corporate-sponsorship name, by the way) to top the rankings. After all, the architecture and amenities are, to me, phenomenal at these two facilities. And both cost a boatload of money to build.

Nope. That’s not what the fans thought. Not even close. Salt River came in 9th and the facility at Palm Beach finished 22nd — and there are only 23 spring parks!

The park that finished first was unwanted by any big-league team as recently as nine years ago. Today, to say it’s beloved would be an understatement.

It’s Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, Florida, the spring home of the Orioles, and (according to the research) the favorite venue for exhibition games of all 23 venues currently in use.

So I wrote my articles for USA TODAY. The piece that was released February 14th looked at the ReviewTrackers’ rankings of the Arizona spring-training parks and the one published on February 21st examined the results in Florida.

But since Ed Smith Stadium finished first overall, I gathered lots and lots of material on it for use in the February 21st article. As it turned out, there was way, way more good material than could ever fit in a 1,000-word article in USA TODAY Sports Weekly.

So that’s why I’m providing you with expanded coverage of the spring home of the Orioles. Over the course of the next few days (to coincide with the start of exhibition games), I’ll be releasing three articles:

PART ONE: The role of the Orioles in remaking Ed Smith Stadium. It provides a transcript of my interview of Orioles Executive Vice President John Angelos. He revealed the fascinating story of how the team got involved with the City of Sarasota, and what it took to transform the forlorn ballpark there. Click here for that interview.

PART TWO: The actual process of working with architects and construction firms fell to Janet Marie Smith. All baseball fans are fortunate that she decided to apply her considerable talent in architecture and urban planning to the sport of baseball. She was quite instrumental in the creation of Camden Yards in Baltimore, the conversion of the Olympic stadium in Atlanta into Turner Field, the renovation of Fenway Park for its 100th anniversary and the $100-million make-over for Dodger Stadium. Today, she is still employed by the Dodgers, but she spoke with me about one of her favorite projects of all time: the transformation of Ed Smith Stadium. Click here to read the transcript of the conversation.

PART THREE: Along the way of gathering info on Ed Smith for the USA TODAY piece, I was able to obtain quotes from Orioles manager Buck Showalter, the designer of the Ed Smith renovation David Schwarz and longtime Oriole pitcher and broadcaster Jim Palmer. You’ll enjoy reading what each had to say about how the Orioles came to inhabit Sarasota’s ballpark, and what it has done for the team. Click here for these quotes.

And here are links to the unabridged versions of the articles that I submitted for the two USA TODAY Spring Training Preview editions for 2018:  the parks of the Cactus League (published on February 14) and the parks of the Grapefruit League (February 21).

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