An edited version of this article appeared in the USA TODAY Spring Training Preview, published on Feb. 21, 2018. Many thanks to the editorial staff for permitting us to reproduce the unabridged version here. All photos shown here are by Joe Mock. All rights reserved.
By Joe Mock
Special to USA TODAY
SARASOTA, FLORIDA In 2009, Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota appeared to be a park without a future. Over the years since it was built in 1989, the Chicago White Sox, Baltimore Orioles and Cincinnati Reds had all moved their spring-training operations elsewhere – the last straw for the Reds coming when local voters rejected a bond measure to rebuild the park in 2008.
At that point, no big-league team was interested in playing there. Today, it is the most popular ballpark in spring training.
We know this because ReviewTrackers, a data-mining firm in Chicago, conducted a study for USA TODAY Sports. They analyzed the comments in 36,000 online reviews of the 23 stadiums used for spring training, compiling the results in a report called The Voice of the Fan. Their research found that Ed Smith Stadium is the most-liked venue for exhibition games.
“To score each spring training stadium, we track what fans say about four aspects of their experience,” explains ReviewTrackers’ Max Schleicher. “We look at how they feel about the facility itself, the family friendliness, the food and drink, and the fan experience. Ed Smith does a lot of things well, as it ranks in the top three of all 23 parks in three of the categories.”
This was possible because the Baltimore Orioles, whose “Orioles Magic” advertising jingle had been on the lips of baseball fans in the Mid-Atlantic in the 1980s and ‘90s, brought some magic to the Gulf Coast of Florida. The often-spurned ballpark was resurrected using a Florida-inspired design and Baltimore-themed touches, all part of a $31 million renovation that was completed in 2011.
The Orioles had returned to Sarasota, and this time, their spring home was a real showplace.
Urban planner and architect Janet Marie Smith, whose resumé includes work on Baltimore’s Camden Yards, Atlanta’s Turner Field and Boston’s Fenway Park, represented the Orioles in discussions about how Ed Smith was to be rebuilt. “I loved having the opportunity of taking the old and making it new again,” she recalls. “Americans are so quick to discard things when they stop meeting current market standards, without thinking about sustainability and using creative ways to re-use them.” (You can read the entire interview with Smith here.)
Orioles Executive Vice President John Angelos credits architect David Schwarz with creating a winning look for the park. “He came up with the idea to wrap the double façade around that old stadium structure, and to go with what he called ‘Florida Picturesque,’ with kind of a turn-of-the-century look with Spanish influence.
“When you look at the before and after pictures, what he came up with is amazing.” (Read the transcript of Angelos’ interview here.)
And it has certainly worked well for players, fans and coaches. “It’s a baseball-functional facility because they did a great job of talking to the on-field personnel first and incorporating those needs with what would be best for the fans,” Orioles Manager Buck Showalter told USA TODAY Sports. “I am constantly hearing about how much (the fans) enjoy it. I know our staff here takes a lot of pride in creating a safe and enjoyable experience, especially for families.”
Adds long-time Orioles pitcher and broadcaster Jim Palmer, “You need to build your club on a good foundation. That’s what the Orioles have now in Sarasota.”
Now let’s examine the other 12 spring-training parks in Florida ranked by ReviewTrackers’ research.
Spurred by extremely positive comments in the food-and-drink category – especially regarding the most-praised food item in all of spring training, their cheesesteaks – the Philadelphia Phillies’ Spectrum Field finished second in the ranking of spring parks.
Most teams hire food-service vendors to handle concessions, but not the Phillies. “We handle it all in-house,” reveals John Timberlake, Director of Florida Operations for the team. “That way, we have control over food selection, cleanliness, quality and pricing, and that resonates with the fans.”
New at Spectrum Field for 2018 is expanded safety netting that is much easier to see through. Fans will also enjoy 16 new beer taps featuring local craft beers and, naturally, cheesesteak nachos.
In third place is LECOM Park (see photo), spring home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was known as McKechnie Field for 55 years before last year’s name change.
It’s the oldest spring-training park, as the St. Louis Cardinals first trained here in 1923, the year it opened. Despite this, the research shows LECOM’s scores were well above the average spring park in all four of the measured categories.
Although not in a hot tourist area of Florida, Charlotte Sports Park finished in fourth place. The Grapefruit League home of the Tampa Bay Rays topped all 23 ballparks in the food-and-drink category – by far. Online comments included rave reviews of the pineapple fried rice, Oreo churros and pork nachos.
The Rays’ park also topped the ranking for family friendliness due to its “Kid Clubhouse” playground and affordable prices.
Also ranking highly in the family category was First Data Field, where the New York Mets play their exhibitions. Although it was below average in the facility findings, its family ranking was buoyed by the amount of shaded area and the comfortable outfield berms.
Hammond Stadium, spring home of the Minnesota Twins, has undergone $48.5 million in improvements over the past four years. The upgrades include a boardwalk ringing the outfield, new berms, expanded concourses, and shaded terraces along the upper rim of the grandstand. The park has always sported an attractive exterior, and now its interior is just as nice.
Both the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals utilize Roger Dean Stadium, the seventh-ranked park in Florida. The online comments aren’t glowing about the family friendliness or concessions, but fans like the facility a great deal. Comments included praise for the orientation of the seats and spacious restrooms.
Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium (see photo) is another park with significant renovations in recent years. The Detroit Tigers have trained in Lakeland since 1934, and at this park since it opened in 1966. Renovations costing $37 million were completed in 2017, causing fans to rank the family friendliness well above average. New features included an outfield plaza, spacious souvenir store, covered party decks and play areas for young fans.
The Boston Red Sox moved into JetBlue Park in the spring of 2012. While user comments weren’t overly positive in most areas, one aspect that shines is food selection. In addition to concession stands beneath the grandstand, there are huge tents between the stadium and parking lots offering food options as varied as grilled grouper tacos and Fenway Franks.
Coming in 10th is Dunedin Stadium, Grapefruit League home of the Toronto Blue Jays. Although fans viewed it as the best park in Florida for autographs, it finished next to last in the food-and-drink category, and not much better in the areas of fan experience and facility. No doubt, its reviews will become more positive after it undergoes a $33 million rebuilding following this year’s spring training. There will be expanded seating and improved food-prep facilities.
Despite $40 million in upgrades, the New York Yankees’ Steinbrenner Field finished 11th. User complaints included inconvenient parking and lack of food options.
This may or may not be the final spring for the Atlanta Braves at Champion Stadium at Walt Disney World. Construction is underway for a new complex in southern Sarasota County, and if it’s not completed in time for 2019 spring training, the Braves have obtained permission to return to Disney for one more spring.
The park that finished last in the ranking of Florida’s 13 spring venues is also the most expensive: The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. The two teams that moved into the new complex last year, the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals, both had tremendous records during the regular season in 2017, but fans did not embrace the facility warmly.
“Even though it’s an impressive, modern stadium, operational issues haven’t been worked out,” said ReviewTrackers’ Schleicher. “Fans complained about traffic and parking problems and concession staff that weren’t fully clued in. Because the kinks haven’t been worked out, fans get an imperfect experience the first time through.”