Life Begins on Opening Day," declared the T-shirt worn by Dawn Nock, who was basking in the Florida sunshine on a March afternoon at Fort Lauderdale Stadium.
They call it the Grapefruit League, and that first week of March, when much of the grapefruit crop is nearing the end of its harvest, a new season of baseball is ready for first bloom.
But spring training is more than baseball. It's a pre-season taste of both spring and summer as Florida temperatures dance around 80 degrees most afternoons, and you can try out old swimsuits to see if they still fit after a winter in the closet.
While some baseball fans plan trips south specifically for spring training, the games can be a pleasant diversion for those visiting Florida for any reason. Eighteen major league teams work out the kinks in competition at ballparks in 15 cities and towns scattered around Florida.
The Orioles' Florida schedule this year may be better suited to the casual vacationer than the dedicated fan because the team mostly plays alternating games at home in Fort Lauderdale and away at seven other stadiums at distances ranging from 55 miles to 200 miles.
It may be tough to follow the Orioles on the longest road trip, from Fort Lauderdale to Kissimmee, where they play the Houston Astros March 14. But for those taking in nearby Central Florida tourist attractions, including Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and Sea World, Kissimmee is just around the corner.
Following the team for every game means spending a lot of time on the road. The Orioles head north for games in Jupiter's Harry Dean Stadium (home to the St. Louis Cardinals and Florida Marlins), Port St. Lucie (New York Mets), Vero Beach (Los Angeles Dodgers) and Viera in the "Space Coast" area (Montreal Expos).
They cross Alligator Alley - a stretch of Interstate 75 through the Everglades and Big Cypress Swamp - to the Gulf Coast three times for games 135 miles away in Fort Myers against the Boston Red Sox at City of Palms Park, and Minnesota Twins at Hammond Stadium.
The closest the team comes to a home stand results from the Orioles' lone open date March 22, sandwiched between games in Fort Lauderdale March 21 against the Red Sox and March 23 against the Expos, and back-to-back games March 30 against the Cardinals and March 31 with the Marlins, to close out play there.
The charm for diehard fans, and even the casual baseball follower, is the intimacy of big-league play in tiny stadiums, where the best seats cost $15 to $20 and even the cheap seats are close to the field. And many players take a little more time to sign autographs or answer a friendly question at spring training.
During the regular season at Oriole Park, such intimacy can be lost in a sellout sea of nearly 50,000 faces. Fort Lauderdale Stadium - one of the larger spring training venues - has a listed capacity of 8,340.
You meet lots of nice folks, too. I've had wonderful chats between innings during my seven spring training trips, with amiable Florida transplants from all over the nation as well as people from Maryland.
There was the father hauled south to spring training by his sons as a retirement gift; a teacher who played hooky to have a long weekend for a family drive from Anne Arundel County (about 17 hours, reaching Vero in time for batting practice); and a boy brought to spring training by his mother as a birthday present - while his father and Yankee-fan older brother stayed home.
Young Ryan Atwell held up a large orange placard proclaiming in black letters: "Ryan is 8 today PLEASE SIGN."
Ryan snared about two dozen Oriole autographs, a Cal Ripken Jr. poster and shirt from the team office, and a Cal baseball card from "a fan who thought he was cute," says his mother, Lisa Atwell, recalling their adventure in 2001 from the family's home in Fallston.
Ripken, embarking on his last season that year, happily signed the baseball card. And after games, mother and son stood by the fence outside the players' parking lot to get signatures, Lisa Atwell recalls. "We stayed out there so late one night, the people who worked at the stadium brought us food."
Some of this year's autograph signers could be future Hall of Famers. It's too early to say whether the team's new superstars - catcher Javy Lopez and shortstop Miguel Tejada - will someday be enshrined at Cooperstown. But slugger Rafael Palmeiro, returning to the team after a long hiatus with the Texas Rangers, looks like a sure thing to join the ranks of such duly-honored Orioles as Frank and Brooks Robinson, Eddie Murray, Jim Palmer and, pretty soon, Ripken.
Spring training begins for players this week with the first full workouts. Opening Day at Fort Lauderdale is March 4. The Orioles' first opponent is the Marlins - the 2003 World Series champion. That distinction could produce high demand for tickets at Fort Lauderdale, where crowds have increased during the nine years that the Orioles have played there.
The team had an attendance last March of 71,453 during 15 games - the average of 4,764 representing a slight drop from 2002, in part because of the late addition of one game to the schedule and its low ticket sales, according to team spokesman Bill Stetka.
As a promotion since last year, the Orioles have offered free spring training tickets as an incentive for fans buying season tickets to Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
The difficulty of getting spring training tickets depends on the lure of particular teams or players.
Based on early ticket sales at Fort Lauderdale, the lone Red Sox visit March 21 and the only scheduled night game there, March 27 against the Marlins, are likely sellouts.
The Red Sox and New York Yankees, the latter with a 10,000-seat stadium in Tampa, are big draws in Florida, where New Englanders seem happy to flee in winter and retirees with New York accents abound.
The popular Atlanta Braves play at Disney's Wide World of Sports, which built a fancy spring training venue and negotiated a long-term lease with the team. The Disney-Braves combination makes for a tougher, pricier ticket, topping out at $20.50 for the best seats.
The St. Louis Cardinals (with the Marlins, the Orioles' nearest neighbor) peaked in ticket sales during the last years of slugger Mark McGwire's career. He's been retired for two seasons, so tickets to see the Cardinals may be easier to get on short notice. Prices for the best seats for both teams' games at their shared Harry Dean Stadium are the most expensive in the Grapefruit League at $21 and $22.
By comparison, Oriole tickets in Fort Lauderdale are $15 for box seats, $10 reserved grandstand and $7 general admission bleachers ($3 for children age 14 and younger) - with advance-sale grandstand seats for seniors $5 on weekdays.
Spring training can be habit-forming. For Dawn Nock and her friend Nancy Warner, of Dover, Del., it has become an annual two-week vacation.
"It's something I wanted to do before I turned 40," Nock says of her pre-season ritual begun in 1996. "I made it."
Nock, supervisor of licensing and jury commissioner for the Queen Anne's County Circuit Court, says she is getting ready for her ninth trip, and looking forward to more than baseball.
The trip, Nock says, has the feel of a family reunion. She sees many of the same vacationers every year at the Sea Shell Resort Motel in Pompano Beach - a block from the surf, and closer to the ballpark than many of the more expensive digs a few miles south along Lauderdale's beach.
And Nock says she is pleased with the Orioles' 2004 prospects: "This year, we actually have a team to watch," she says, referring to the off-season acquisitions of Lopez, Tejada and Palmeiro, and the return of Sidney Ponson to the pitching mound after a brief stint with the San Francisco Giants.
On paper, the Orioles look like contenders. And at spring training games, you can get a look at just how good the team might be.
The Orioles are scheduled to close out spring training with an exhibition game against the Cincinnati Reds on Saturday, April 3, in Chattanooga, Tenn., and fly home for the season opener April 4 at Oriole Park, where undoubtedly it will be a lot colder, a lot more crowded and more expensive than at Fort Lauderdale Stadium.
But, hey - that's baseball.
WHEN YOU GO
Getting there: Fort Lauderdale is nearly 1,100 miles from Baltimore - at a minimum one day's drive. Several major airlines offer connecting service between BWI and Florida locations. In addition, Southwest Airlines (800-435-9792; www.southwestairlines.com) flies nonstop to Fort Lauderdale.
Getting around: If you follow the Orioles on the road, book a rental car with unlimited mileage. This year, I found an online deal through Hertz (800-654-3131; www.hertz.com) for a $115.76 weekly rate (before taxes and airport fees) combining a AAA discount and a Hertz promotion.
Lodging: Even in March, when prices can run $150 to $300 a night at oceanfront hotels in Fort Lauderdale, bargains abound. It's easy to find lodging for $60 to $80 a short distance from the water in smaller motels in towns like Pompano Beach and Hollywood.
Dawn Nock's favorite place, the little Sea Shell Resort Motel in Pompano (800-536-0567; www.seashellresortmotel.com), has a one-bedroom efficiency at $75 and is about a 10-minute drive from Fort Lauderdale Stadium. I've stayed nearby for comparable prices at the Ronny Dee Resort Motel (954-943-3020), which recently changed ownership.
Orioles tickets: For the Orioles at Fort Lauderdale, call 954-776-1921 for information or a faxable order form. Or you can visit the team's Web site, www.theorioles.com. The Major League Baseball Web site, www.mlb.com, includes links to spring training information and tickets for all teams in Florida (as well as the other big-league squads making up the Cactus League in Arizona).
For more information about the Fort Lauderdale area, including lodging and attractions, visit www.sunny.org or call 800-227-8669; for various Florida destinations, visit www.flausa.com.
David Michael Ettlin