In the past week, I drove a total of 1,166 miles across the Sunshine State as I explored 7 different Grapefruit League ballparks of Major League Baseball during the 2023 Spring Training season. I ranked each ballpark from Best to, well not so best. Here’s the criteria on what I was looking for at each ballpark I visited:
Cleanliness: How clean and put together was the facility and stadium for fans and players?
Staff: Was the staff friendly and helpful? How did each staff member assist me as I navigated my way around the park and facilities?
Atmosphere: Was there a large crowd? Was there excitement when you entered the gates? Did the fans seem to be enjoying themselves and the game?
Fan Engagement: Were the Event crew members engaging with fans between innings and how did the fans react to games and promotions?
*Each category was ranked 1-10 and then the mean score of each was calculated for a final overall score per ballpark*
Day 1: Atlanta Braves, Cool Today Park
On my first day, I headed to North Port to watch the Braves host the Detroit Tigers. as a fan. Freshly built in 2019, the new home of Atlanta Braves Spring Training still has that new “fresh car smell and feel” when you arrive at the ballpark. As I entered 30 minutes to gametime, music was blasting, the aroma of popcorn and bbq sandwiches punched you in the nostrils, and the scoreboard was conveniently showing a WBC game as fans waited for the game to begin. I chatted with a few of the gate employees when coming in on directions and if I could bring a laptop in, and they were very kind and helpful. I went into the gift shop and a lady at the register gave me a game program instead of me paying 10$ for one outside. I had great seats right behind the Braves dugout (in the shade) and the fans were friendly and interactive with each other. One mid-inning event the Braves put on was throwing beach balls in the stands. I thought this was a great way to get everyone up and alive as the game stretched into the later innings. Overall, the stadium was fresh and clean, the staff was helpful, and the fans enjoyed the high scoring 16-7 game as much as I did.
Staff: 8/10(they didn’t happen to check my backpack when I walked in. This could be very unsafe in the future)
Fan Engagement: 8/10
Day 2: Pittsburgh Pirates, LECOM Park
On my second day, some friends and I went to a Sunday Braves vs. Pirates game in Bradenton at LECOM Park. When we arrived, the stadium is in a not so great part of town. It’s run down and dated with random people standing out front of lots and driveways charging 25$+ for parking. However, we found a Pirates parking employee that let us park for free because by the time we found parking, the game had already started and it was a good 2 block walk from the stadium. When we got inside, the atmosphere was good and there was a decent crowd though the seats were tight, but the stadium was definitely dated as the Pirates are celebrating their 100th anniversary of Spring Training there. The fan engagement was sub par, as they did your average T-shirt toss, but I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. Overall, the stadium was dated yet historic, but the fans were great, and the players were engaging.
Fan Engagement: 5/10
Day 3: Philadelphia Phillies, BayCare Ballpark
On this day, I had a media credential to watch Batting Practice on the field and interview Dalton Guthrie, former Gator Baseball player. I arrived at the park early that morning in Clearwater and got my credential in the front office. I had a long talk with the front desk credential assistant Bill, a retired New Jersey police officer who as a pleasant man to talk to. After speaking to a few coordinators on what my angle and objective was, I finally got into the media area and was led to the field. Being a student journalist for some reason, it was very tight ship-like. We had one of the coordinators follow us around, watching us like a hawk up until the moment I spoke with Dalton. When I spoke with him, the coordinator was standing very close to us, looking right at me as I tried to have a conversation with Dalton. I am grateful for the opportunity they gave us, but as soon as we concluded, the coordinator left and we had no guidance on what to do next. However, I stayed and watched the Braves BP who the Phillies were playing that day, and met other security, photographers, and media staff from various organizations outside of the Phillies who were fantastic people to talk to. I was supposed to have a place to sit and watch the game, but ended up not having one since the game was sold out as I was told. So they led me and some colleagues onto the concourse and told us to find somewhere to sit, which wasn’t very helpful. During the game however, there was a tiki bar in left field that was packed and offered a great island feel on a hot day in Clearwater. The fans were having a great time, and the “Philli Fanatic” mascot was riding around on a four-wheeler during pregame to get the crowd excited, which accompanied the 202 NL East trophy being displayed for all fans to get a picture with. The stadium was hustling and bustling just like downtown Philly, and the atmosphere was (Philli) fantastic.
Staff: 6/10 (a little more guidance and a seat would’ve been helpful)
Fan Engagement: 9/10
Day 4: Tampa Bay Rays, Tropicana Field
This was a very unique experience. Due to the hurricanes in Florida in the past few months, the Rays usual site was damaged and were forced to host Spring Training at their home ballpark in St. Petersburg. From the moment we stepped into the stadium, everyone was welcoming and open to any and every question I had. One of the Rays staff members, Becca, gave us a tour of the media press box and introduced us to the Bally Sports Broadcasting staff along with a few others who were so insightful. We then watched BP on the field and got to talk to many others like pre and postgame host Rich Hollenberg along with Rays MLB.com writer Adam Berry. Following BP, we had assigned seats in the press box for the game with food and drinks provided. I spent a few innings there talking to a Texas Rangers scout, then I popped into the radio booth and watched them as they gave play by play commentary. I even met Denard Span as he guest appeared on the broadcast. The Rays don’t bring in high attendance during the regular season, despite them being a playoff contender year in and year out, so I didn’t expect a huge crowd to be there; which there wasn’t. The big stadium probably made the crowd seem smaller as well, but most of the stadium was closed off like the stingray touch tank since it’s only preseason. However, the ballpark was still engaging with fans and you could hear the shouts and heckling from the pressbox of the fans down below. Overall, I had an amazing day and the staff made everything enjoyable to be apart of.
Cleanliness: 8/10 (stadium is still dated and dark. It’s been through its use already for sure)
Fan Engagement: 7/10 (didn’t happen to notice any extra engagement that made it stand out as a fan)
Day 5: Miami Marlins/ St. Louis Cardinals, Roger Dean Stadium
This day was very exciting. I traveled to Jupiter, where the Marlins and Cardinals both share a complex and stadium, but each have their own facilities as well. When I arrived, parking was confusing to find, but other than that everything went smoothly. I had full access as I went down to watch pregame BP for the teams. Following BP, the Cardinals were hosting a sponsors outdoor lunch behind the stadium where the team manager and Vice President of Baseball Operations both spoke on various topics and players. They had an immaculate seafood buffet and drink stand set up for everyone, and brought out a few players to sign baseballs for the sponsors and their families. As I walked around the complex, players were polite and welcoming; I got a picture with Jean Segura as he just returned from the World Baseball Classic and saw many others up close like Jazz Chisolm Jr. and Jorge Soler. During the game, I sat up in the media press box. Everything was clean, simple, and well put together. I spent an inning down behind the on deck circle in the front row to see Jazz and a few others hit. The fans were having a great time regardless of the Marlins giving up 11 runs in the second inning of the game, and the crowd of mostly families with younger children definitely seemed engaged and to be enjoying the atmosphere of the game. There were a few mid inning games to get the kids involved like a dance battle and a disk toss, but nothing out of the usual that stood out to me, but Jazz did stay after and sign many baseballs and hats for kids. However, it happened to be St. Patrick’s Day, and the restaurants and shops in the park across the street from the stadium had an entire festival following the game, which gave the fans the option to continue enjoying the experience and partake in the festivities. From children running around and some playing catch with their dad’s, to the beer stands and green balloons set up along the street, the entire area was stirring with energy and smiles. Overall, the access was optimal as I was able to go into the locker room postgame as well, and the stadium personnel was friendly and very helpful. I would definitely take my family here to enjoy a game.
Fan Engagement: 9/10
Day 6: Houston Astros/ Washington Nationals, Ballpark of The Palm Beaches
My last ballpark visit very well could’ve been my favorite. In West Palm Beach, the Astros and Nationals both share a stadium and complex as well, but their facilities and stadium blow Jupiter out of the water. With a huge stadium in the front of the property, both ballclubs have 4 full fields of their own, with turf and outdoor cages for fans to watch as well. When I arrived, I got my credential and walked down to the field to go watch some BP as I was set to interview all star Michael Brantley after he hit. I got to stand feet away from Alex Bregman and manager Dusty Baker and witness the raw power and elite hitting first hand. The fans were right behind me behind a fence, but when BP concluded, the players took time to sign autographs and take pictures. It was awesome to see them take time to socialize with their fans and show appreciation. Leading up to the game, I got to be on the field with Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson during a promotion and see him up close. I spent the game in the press box and watched Max Scherzer pitch for the Mets which was a treat of its own. The staff hospitality and fan engagement is what stuck out the most to me. The security and staff were out of their way friendly, made jokes, and were welcoming as I found my way around the facility. For the fans, player access was up close and personal; they had had many games for kids between innings and videos on the jumbotron. The most exciting was the stadium held a firework show for the fans after the game. It was beautiful and so enjoying to watch from the top of the press box. It reminded me of the Sandlot movies 4th of July scene where smalls quotes, ” how can you not be romantic about baseball?”
Fan engagement: 10/10
Jesse’s Power Rankings
- Houston Astros/ Washington Nationals, Ballpark of The Palm Beaches
- Atlanta Braves, Cool Today Park
- Tampa Bay Rays, Tropicana Field
- Miami Marlins/ St. Louis Cardinals, Roger Dean Stadium
- Philadelphia Phillies, BayCare Ballpark
- Pittsburgh Pirates, LECOM Park