'Grapefruit League' baseball about to heat up the Sunshine State

The Toronto Blue Jays have made Dunedin their Spring Training base since their inception in 1977.
The Toronto Blue Jays have made Dunedin their Spring Training base since their inception in 1977. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Major League Baseball

It's been 125 years since the Philadelphia Phillies became the first baseball team to conduct their preseason conditioning in Florida, and the Sunshine State's "Grapefruit League" has now grown to 15 teams in 13 cities. The annual preseason ritual will continue, to the delight of fans from coast to coast, when pitchers and catchers begin reporting the middle of next month.

Teams generally set up camp in Central and South Florida, as northern Florida can still be pretty chilly in the late winter and early spring. These balmy cities are the best place to catch the summer game while many of the teams' hometowns are still covered in snow. We're looking at you, Toronto.

The first game of the 2019 Grapefruit League will take place on Feb. 22, when the Tampa Bay Rays take on the Philadelphia Phillies at Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte, and ends March 26, making for a full month of home runs, shoestring catches and strikeouts.

Attending spring training games come with some definite advantages over seeing your favorite club back home. First of all, games are more casual and much less stressful for players than regular season games, and the ballparks are far more intimate than they are up north, which means players are more likely to come mingle with fans and sign autographs before and after the game.

Second, the concentration of ballclubs in the Sunshine State makes it easy for fans to follow their favorite team around. Staying in the state for a while and attending more than one game means the opportunity to check out Florida cities that fly under the radar. View the full schedule to plan a route.

Here's a scorecard of where baseball's very best will be prepping for the season ahead this spring.

Atlanta Braves: Lake Buena Vista
The defending National League East champs set up shop at Disney's Wide World of Sports complex, making it easy to catch a game when you need a break from standing in line at the parks. The Spanish Mission-style stadium has just over 9,000 seats, and most of them are between first and third base, making for excellent vantage points from any chair.

Baltimore Orioles: Sarasota
Ed Smith Stadium is the jewel of a 53-acre complex, which received a $31.2 million renovation between 2010 and 2011. The Orioles aren't the first team to grace the Gulf Coast city: Sarasota has a long Grapefruit League history dating back to the 1920s, hosting the New York Giants, Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox and Cincinnati Reds along the way.

Boston Red Sox: Fort Myers
JetBlue Park is the summer home of the reigning World Champions. It debuted in 2012 just off I-75 in Fort Myers, making it an easy stop off the highway. The 10,600-seat stadium is known as "Fenway South," because it was built to look like the fabled Boston ballpark, including its imposing Green Monster leftfield wall and a manually operated scoreboard; unlike its Boston counterpart, this Monster has seating inside the wall. The complex also features six lighted practice fields.

Detroit Tigers: Lakeland
Lakeland may not be first on your must-see-cities list, but maybe it should be. On Tigers' game day, Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium fills up with fans taking advantage of the stadium improvements unveiled in 2017, including more concessions, additional box seats and an 1,800-square-foot merchandise store. Before or after the game, take the Frank Lloyd Wright tour at Florida Southern College, the largest collection of the famous architect's work.

Houston Astros: West Palm Beach
The Astros left their longtime training site in Kissimmee last year, and this will be their first year in the Palm Beaches at FitTeam Ball Park. The new $148 million venue includes a 6,400-seat ballpark, but before you even sit down, you'll walk through the players' gym and training fields, making for a truly immersive experience for diehard fans.

Miami Marlins: Jupiter
Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium in Jupiter is really just a stone's throw from the team's Miami home, but with luxury sky, loge and field boxes as well as calming walkways lined with palm trees, it feels as far away from Miami's hustle as anywhere else.

Minnesota Twins: Fort Myers
It might look like Churchill Downs at first glance, but CenturyLink Sports Complex is all baseball inside. Concessions are plentiful, and each stand has a TV monitor, so no one will miss a second of the action on the field while waiting to grab a bite.

New York Mets: Port St. Lucie
Though built in the 1980s, First Data Field was upgraded in 2013, adding 502 box seats in right field, three more concession stands, a huge video Jumbo-Tron scoreboard and a picnic area where families can feast before entering the park.

New York Yankees: Tampa
George Steinbrenner Field is the largest ballpark in the Grapefruit League, with a capacity of just over 11,000 thanks to a right-field addition that opened in 2007. The Yankees have called it home since moving from Fort Lauderdale in 1996. The field underwent a renovation in 2017, but the park retains the same dimensions and trademark grandstand facade as the old Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.

Philadelphia Phillies: Clearwater
The Phillies moved to Clearwater in 1947, and they've been spring training residents there ever since. Spectrum Field houses 8,500 people, with 7,000 fixed seats and an additional 1,500-person capacity on a grass bern for more casual spectating. Families with smaller kids (read: shorter attention spans) love the bern to allow their tots to expend some energy between innings.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Bradenton
The Gulf Coast town of Bradenton is the Pirates' spring training stamping grounds. Fans can catch a game at Lecom Park, which has been the team's home since 1969. They'll play their 15 home games there, starting with a Feb. 24 opener against the Miami Marlins.

St. Louis Cardinals: Jupiter
The Cards share their spring training digs with the Marlins at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium in Jupiter. The stadium's 7,000 seats are situated over two levels. A hike to the top of the Jupiter Inlet Light House is a perfect way to walk off the thrill of the win or the pain of a defeat.

Tampa Bay Rays: Port Charlotte
The Rays spend the regular season at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, but their spring training home is located about 60 miles down the road in Port Charlotte. Charlotte Sports Park, built in 1987 and renovated in 2009, holds more than 7,500 fans when full.

Toronto Blue Jays: Dunedin
The tiny, "old Florida" town of Dunedin is the spring home of the Blue Jays, as it has been since the American League East team debuted in 1977. And 5,500-seat Dunedin Stadium has played host to every player who's ever come through the Blue Jays organization. An agreement has been reached to expand the stadium in time for next year's spring training, when capacity will swell to 8,500.

Washington Nationals: West Palm Beach
The Nats have left the Space Coast and will join their fellow Texans, the Houston Astros, at FitTeam Ball Park next month. Fittingly, the two clubs will square off in their first spring training game on Feb. 23.


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