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Spring Training With The Blue Jays in Florida

Two whole weeks of March break! For many families, this means enough time to do the marathon drive to Florida for sun, sea, surfóand baseball. Itís a perfect time to catch the Grapefruit League in action, especially this year, there are lots of good seats available for Blue Jays games. Many other professional teams play nearby the teamís camp at Dunedin (just north of Clearwater), and on off days, you can watch the minor leaguers at Dunedinís Englebert Complex for free. Spring training is baseball at its best. The atmosphere is relaxed; the players come and go as real people, not stars; the grass is real, the weather is warm, and who knows? You may spot a future Alomar sliding into base. For those who are contemplating a visit, here are some ABCís to help make the experience a great one.

A is for Autographs: If youíre lucky, the kids may get to see the players after the game and get an autograph or two on a baseball, a picture, or even a glove. It took a few games and lots of patience for my sons to get signatures from Cito and several of the Blue Jays but it was worth the wait. Players will often sign for the kids but not for the adults who plan to turn the items over for a profit.

A is for Alligators: Unusual things can happen at spring training where players are tested and glitches are part of the fun. It was during the first day of spring training in St. Petersburg in 1925 that Babe Ruth was chased off the field by an alligator. For the Jays first spring training game in 1977, the field was so wet they had to set it on fire to dry it off.

A is for Aquarium: One of the great things about traveling to Dunedin is that thereís lots to do in the area when youíre not at the ball park. The new $84 million Florida Aquarium, which opened last March on the waterfront in downtown Tampa, exhibits three stories of specimens under a giant seashell-shape glass roof. Kids will also enjoy Busch Gardens Tampa Bay with its dragon-themed childrenís adventure land and the MOSI Science Center with its new IMAX theatre and more than 450 hands-on activities.

A is for Accommodation: Downtown Dunedin, a town of 35,000 people, has been given a new facelift with cafťs, antique stores, and a new library in progress. Families wishing to stay near the ball park can find motels such as Comfort Inn, Days Inn or the Ramada Inn on the I-19 or stay in Clearwater at a hotel such as the new Holiday Inn Suites. Those tempted to stay on the St. Petersburg beach south of Tampa may sorry, especially if the kids are young and bouncy and eager to get to the ball park. The distance is not far on the map but there are lots of lights and the traffic can be bumper to bumper all the way.

B is for Batting Practice: Take the kids to Englebert Complex in the morning to see the minor leaguers do batting practice. (Thereís at least two games a day there on the three fields.) Or you can get to Dunedin Stadium before 9:30 a.m. to see the Blue Jays arrive and spend the morning there. Itís free. The field is cleared around 11 a.m. Games start at 1:05 p.m.

B is for Bleacher Seats: At $7 U.S. per reserved bleacher seat, itís a deal, although the regular $9 U.S. ticket price for seats in the stands is not bad either. You can request sun or shade and whether or not you want to be near the dugout. Kids under three can get in for free provided they sit on a parentís lap. Call (813) 733-0429 for tickets for games on March 12, 13, 14, 17, 18, 21 and 23.

B is for Bus: Parking is at a premium this year because the town is using the lot for a new library. You can park at the Junior High school in Dunedin instead, at the corner of Union and Patricia Ave., and take the free shuttle bus. Parking costs about $4 U.S.

B is for Bronx: Legends Field, the New York Yankeesí new 10,000-seat spring training facility in nearby Tampa, duplicates the dimensions of their stadium in the Bronx. Baseball fans will also want to visit the Philadelphia Phillies at the Jack Russell Memorial Stadium in Clearwater and the St. Louis Cardinals at Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg, both within a 40-minute drive down the peninsula. For tickets, call 1-800-969-2657 (Yankees), (813) 442-8496 (Phillies) and (813) 822-3384 (Cardinals).

C is for Cito, Carlos (Delgado) and Carter: Where else but spring training can a fan yell out advice to the team manager or players and get a courteous reply or a wave from a coach? Spring training is informal. You can banter with and take pictures of the players. And the park is small enough that you donít have to worry about the kids getting lost in a huge crowd.

C is for Cap: Bring hats for the kids and sun screen too. While it may be cool and breezy at the beach, it can be roasting at the ball park especially if youíre sitting in the afternoon sun. If youíre bringing the kids, request shade and an aisle seat for an emergency getaway.

C is for Concession Stand: All manner of Blue Jays paraphanalia is on sale at the stadium from autographed baseballs to pens and T-shirts.





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