For Baltimore baseball fans inspired by the Orioles' surprising success last year, spring training couldn't have come soon enough. Those who never wanted that magic season to end along with newbie Birds fans are already flocking in droves to the team's Grapefruit League home at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota.
I had some genuine Smalltimore moments during the first two days of a recent five-day visit to the Gulf Coast of Florida, where the Orioles roost from February to the end of March.
After a 5-1 victory over the Yankees on Monday — a third straight win to start the spring season — I headed to O'Leary's Tiki Bar & Grill in Sarasota's Bayfront Park.
Taking a seat at the square bar under a thatched roof overlooking the bay, I sidled up next to a guy with a Buck Showalter T-shirt. He turned out to be Cal Miller, a 60-something rabid Orioles fan from Baltimore and a friend of Greg Schwalenberg, a good buddy of mine who is curator of the Babe Ruth Museum by day and beer vendor at Oriole Park by night.
Miller and I quickly sparked a lively conversation over a couple of beers while watching the sun set over the water. We were in good company — seated near us were a man and woman, both wearing Buck Showalter T-shirts. As they got up to leave, the man introduced his wife as Mrs. Showalter.
I had arrived in Sarasota one day earlier, flying into Tampa International Airport early enough to pick up my rental car and make the short drive to Dunedin, Fla., in time for the Orioles' game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Auto Exchange Stadium. I missed an exit and took one wrong turn, arriving a little bit late but just in time to see Orioles reserve outfielder Steve Pearce jack a two-run homer off Blue Jays pitcher Mark Buehrle in the top of the second inning.
If you go to Sarasota to see the O's this spring here are 10 things you'll want to know.
1. Ed Smith Stadium The Orioles play their Grapefruit League home games at the recently remodeled Ed Smith Stadium, where the team set franchise records for spring training attendance in each of the last two seasons. The ballpark is a bright white and orange with different versions of the Oriole Bird logo hanging all over the place. Even the concession stands make you feel at home. Last year, my girlfriend bought us a couple of soft-shell crab sandwiches and the guy at the counter wanted to make sure we knew what they were. When she dropped one of them on the ground trying to get to her seat, a collective groan went up through our entire section. A 2012 Wild Card Pennant flag was added this year to the championship chandelier that hangs in the ballpark's main entrance lobby.
3. Two halves of the Grapefruit League Half of Major League Baseball's 30 teams play in the Grapefruit League on Florida's east and west coasts. The Orioles' coastal neighbors include the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Philadelphia Phillies, Minnesota Twins, Toronto Blue Jays, Pittsburgh Pirates and Tampa Bay Rays. Florida's East Coast Grapefruit League includes the Detroit Tigers, Houston Astros, Atlanta Braves, Washington Nationals, New York Mets, St. Louis Cardinals, and Florida Marlins.
4. Packed schedule In all, the Orioles are scheduled to play 33 spring training games (17 at home and 16 on the road), as well as exhibition games against Team Spain of this year's World Baseball Classic, on March 6, and the State College of Florida squad on March 29. The Orioles conclude the spring season at home against the New York Mets on March 30.
5. Staying on a budget There are plenty of budget motels on Route 41 just a few miles north of downtown Sarasota and some relatively new, select-service, franchise properties near the airport. I stayed at the conveniently located Hilton Garden Inn, just five miles from downtown. Of course, there are also some expensive beachfront luxury resort properties, like the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota, Hyatt Regency and the Lido Beach Resort. Last year, I stayed in St. Petersburg at the charming boutique Pier Hotel, the oldest continually operating hotel in the city. Near the Tampa airport, the Best Western Bay Harbor Hotel is convenient and fun, with a Crabby Bill's restaurant and three bars.
6. Fine dining is easy to find There are more Zagat-rated restaurants in the Sarasota area than anywhere else in Florida, most of them located on Main Street in downtown and nearby St. Armand's Circle, just across the Ringling Bridge on the John Ringling Causeway. I made a serendipitous discovery of the Thai/sushi Drunken Poet Cafe (1572 Main St., Sarasota, 941-955-8404; drunkenpoetsarasota.com) and without incriminating myself too much, have to say I fit right in. For dinner I had whole red snapper in a spicy chili sauce. The dish was so big that I had the other half for lunch the next day.
7. Area attractions If you can make time for it before or after the afternoon ballgames, Sarasota is known for its beaches. The Siesta Key's beach was named Dr. Beach's top beach in 2011 and offers some of the whitest and softest sand in the world. The sand is composed of 99 percent quartz, which also makes it cooler on the feet. The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art (5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota, 941-359-5700; ringling.org) is the official art museum of the state of Florida, containing more than 10,000 works of art, and the Circus Museum — yes, John was one of the Ringling Brothers —features a small-scale replica of the famous Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, circa 1919-1938.
8. Sipping Sarasota There's no shortage of postgame watering holes in and around Sarasota. I took an immediate liking to O'Leary's for its fantastic view of the sunset and warm breeze off the bay. If you catch the O's on the road in Dunedin, you'll want to visit the Dunedin House of Beer (927 Broadway Ave., 727-216-6318; dunedinhob.com), where you can get two of the 40 craft beers available on tap for the price of one if you have a ticket stub from the day's game. Growlers Pub (2831 N. Tamiani Trail, Sarasota, 941-487-7373; growlersonline.com) has 30 American craft beers and imports on draft. I stopped in for open-mike night on Tuesday, a vibrant scene where a familiar gang of regulars who also happen to be musicians hang out and entertain each other in a very supportive and encouraging environment. They don't serve food here, but they keep a bunch of menus from neighboring restaurants that will gladly deliver. Many of the regulars work in the service industry in nearby restaurants and bars, which tells you all you need to know about the place.
9. Getting around Although Sarasota's Main Street area and St. Armand's Circle are great for strolling, you'll want to rent a car if you're planning on going to any of the other Grapefruit League ballparks. Of the west coast ballparks, Bradenton is the closest to Sarasota, about 15 minutes; Fort Myers is the farthest at about 90 minutes; and Dunedin and Tampa are about an hour away. Bring your patience, too. Traffic is congested and moves slowly.
10. Getting there While there are no nonstop flights into the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport from Baltimore, several airlines offer nonstop flights to nearby Tampa International Airport and also to nearby Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers.
If you go
Orioles spring training is based at Ed Smith Stadium, 2700 12th St., Sarasota, Fla., 941-893-6300. For more information on visiting the area, go to visitsarasota.org.