Covering the bases

THE BALTIMORE SUN

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Snowbirds, the winter-only residents of Florida, have been here for several months.

This month, however, a whole new flock makes the trip south. Not to escape winter, but to put a rush on spring -- by taking in the boys of summer.

Eighteen Major League Baseball teams have spring training sites in Florida (the other 12 are in Arizona), including the Orioles. Unlike many of the other Florida-based camps, which are in quiet outposts, the Orioles train in Fort Lauderdale, one of the more happening locales in the Sunshine State.

So if you can't wait until opening day, April 3, to see whether Miguel Tejada is content, Brian Roberts is healthy and Anna Benson (the high-profile wife of Orioles starting pitcher Kris Benson) is tan, then this is the place to be.

But consider yourself warned: Unless you fancy driving up and down Interstate 95 in stop-and-go traffic every other day during a week's vacation, you might want to plan other things to do besides watching Grapefruit League games.

The downside of playing in Fort Lauderdale is that only one other training complex, Jupiter's Roger Dean Stadium, which houses the St. Louis Cardinals and Florida Marlins, is within an hour's drive. Everything else is a haul (the rival Boston Red Sox, for instance, play 140 miles away in Fort Myers).

So when the Orioles are on the road, which typically happens three or four times each week, fans might be better off taking in the sights around this seaside city. There are plenty of places that can make you feel closer to home, without the threat of snow.

Here's a primer for the traveling O's fan:

If you love Camden Yards, then ... well, frankly, you'll miss it. Fort Lauderdale Stadium is the second-oldest stadium in the Grapefruit League, and it shows. It has the Orioles, without any of the modern convenience of Oriole Park.

But it is cheaper to attend games here - from $8 to $18 with discounts for kids and seniors - and tickets are usually available on game day. If you want some interaction with players, then sit along the right-field line near the Orioles bullpen.

And if you want some Florida sun, it's tough to beat the bleachers in right field.

If you love getting autographs, then you will adore spring training. The players are more accessible and the rules are more relaxed. Some players, especially pitchers who have already thrown, might sign between innings.

The best place to get autographs, though, is at the entrance of the players' parking lot before and after games. Players must report at 9 a.m. for a 1:05 p.m. game and most get in between 7:30 a.m. and 8:45 a.m.

They'll sign from their cars if you are polite and orderly. Some fans get there as early as 6 a.m. to guarantee a spot right at the gate.

If you love to hang out at Pickles Pub or other nearby sports bars after games in Baltimore, your best bet during spring training is Champps Americana, about a mile east of the stadium in Cypress Creek Station.

Yes, it is a chain. Also, it is cavernous, so you lose that intimate, friendly sports-argument feel. But the place has several huge TV projection screens, and the staff is willing to accommodate fans' requests within reason.

That means plenty of University of Maryland basketball games have been shown there over the years. Don't be surprised if you run into some Orioles watching the NCAA basketball tournament, because it is right around the corner from the team hotel. And don't pass up a chance at the Cobb salad, which is practically served in a trough.

For a more gritty, blue-collar place to shoot pool or play darts, try Jester's or Cheers, both on Cypress Creek Road, also east of Fort Lauderdale Stadium, or the Circus Bar & Grill, just north of the stadium in Pompano Beach.

If you love steamed crabs, the official Orioles' spring training crab shack is Riggins Crabhouse, about a 40-minute drive up I-95 in Lantana, Fla. Some snowbirds believe Riggins' crabs are better than - gasp - places in Baltimore.

The blue crabs are steamed in vinegar and beer and seasoned with Old Bay. Riggins also sponsors a "crabby fan of the game" promotion at each home game in which a randomly selected fan gets a T-shirt and gift certificate. Prices for steamed crabs range from $39 per dozen (medium) to $51 per dozen (large). Jumbos ($6) and colossals ($7) are sold per crab.

If you want a crab dinner South Florida-style, head south to Miami Beach and the legendary Joe's Stone Crab. Joe's does the claw delicacy - lots of meat, less work than Maryland crabs - like no other. But it doesn't accept reservations, so get there early or plan on waiting.

If you love going down to the ocean, then the 23 miles of beaches in the greater Fort Lauderdale area are for you. They aren't too crowded in March and the water, though a bit nippy, is a beautiful blue. Fort Lauderdale is no longer the college spring break hotbed it used to be (about 10,000 spring breakers converge here now compared with about 300,000 in its heyday), but some of that revelry remains along A1A in the southern part of the city.

For an eye-popping time, South Beach in Miami is a better bet. Calmer folks should try Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, which is east of the stadium at the end of Commercial Boulevard. There's a fishing pier there, and several restaurants, including Aruba Beach Cafe, a beachfront place with a killer blackened mahi mahi sandwich.

If you love Baltimore's Harborplace, then check out Fort Lauderdale's Beach Place, a drive down A1A, southeast of the stadium. It has boutiques and chain stores, restaurants and clubs and, yes, even a Hooters (there's also a Hooters at Cypress Creek Station).

Other chic shopping can be found on Las Olas Boulevard. If you want the feel of Baltimore's Canton or Fells Point, there are good restaurants/bars at the Las Olas Riverfront and Riverwalk in downtown Fort Lauderdale.

If you love the Walters Art Gallery, then you need to go to the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale in downtown. The traveling King Tut exhibit will be on display through April 23. Fifty major objects from the famed King Tutankhamun's tomb are on display. There are plenty of other things to see as well; the museum has 21,000 square feet of exhibit space.

If you love Pimlico and Laurel racetracks, then you can play the ponies at Gulfstream Park, a thoroughbred track a few miles southeast of the stadium on Federal Highway (U.S. 1) in Hallandale Beach, or watch harness racing at Pompano Park, a five-minute drive northwest of the stadium.

If you'd prefer betting on something that barks, there's the Mardi Gras Racetrack & Gaming Center (formerly the Hollywood Greyhound Track), also in Hallandale Beach. If you've never been to a dog race, it's worth attending at least once. If you'd rather put your money on humans, there's Dania Jai Lai in Dania Beach, another relatively painless drive to see a Florida-flavored international sport.

If you want something uniquely South Florida, then pick up the water taxi and cruise along the Intracoastal Waterway and the New River. For a $10, all-day pass, you can get on and off as much as you want. It's a safe and easy way to get to bars, restaurants and shopping. Plus, tourists love gawking at the millionaire mansions visible from the boats. It runs from 10:30 a.m. to midnight every day and makes 11 stops.

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

If You Go

Fort Lauderdale Stadium

1301 NW 55th St., Fort Lauderdale

Box office phone: 954-776-1921

Tickets: $18 for box seats; $12 reserve grandstand; $8 general admission (adults); $4 general admission (children 14 and younger); $6 seniors reserved (older than 60, select games).

Directions: Take Interstate 95 to Commercial Boulevard (Exit 32). Head west. Turn right at 12th Avenue. It is the second stadium on the left.

Restaurants

Riggins Crabhouse, 607 Ridge Road, Lantana. 561-586-3000.

Joe's Stone Crab, 11 Washington Ave. Miami Beach. 800-780-CRAB.

Aruba Beach Cafe, 1 East Commercial Blvd., Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. 954-776-0001.

Sports bars near Fort Lauderdale Stadium

Champps Americana, 6401 N. Andrews Ave., Fort Lauderdale. 954-491-9335.

The Circus Bar & Grill, 1461 Southwest 30th Ave., Pompano Beach. 954-973-1483.

Jester's, 801 E. Cypress Creek Road, Fort Lauderdale. 954-776-1526.

Cheers, 941 E. Cypress Creek Road, Fort Lauderdale. 954-771-6337.

Racetracks

Gulfstream Park (thoroughbred), 901 S. Federal Highway, Hallandale Beach. 800-771-TURF.

Pompano Park (harness), 1800 SW Third St., Pompano Beach. 954-972-2000.

Mardi Gras Racetrack & Gaming Center (Hollywood Greyhound Track), 831 N. Federal Highway, Hallandale Beach. 954-924-3200.

Jai lai

Dania Jai Lai, 301 E. Dania Beach Blvd., Dania Beach. 954-920-1511.

Museum

Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale, One E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. 954-525-5500.

Shopping/Entertainment/Restaurant complexes

Beach Place, A1A at Cortez St., Fort Lauderdale. 954-764-3460.

Riverwalk, Downtown Fort Lauderdale. 954-468-1541.

Las Olas Riverfront Las Olas Boulevard, Andrews Avenue. 954-522-6556.

Sightseeing Water Taxi, Fort Lauderdale. 954-467-6677.

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