Have a spring training trip planned but had your games canceled? There’s still plenty of baseball options in Arizona and Florida, even if the major leaguers are locked out of camps and minor league training is closed to the public.
We know that many spring-training vets assume they’ll have minor-league workouts and games as a backup should their MLB games be canceled. Not this year. Minor-league camps are currently closed to the public, with guards ensuring you won’t just sneak into the back lots. Yes, there are some camps where you can watch the action at a distance from streets and bike paths, but only authorized visitors are allowed access. That may change once the MiLB games start in a few weeks, but so far no schedules have been issued. MLB teams have pretty much stopped the practice of releasing MiLB game schedules, to be honest, even before COVID impacted the training experience. We’ll let you know if any scheds come our way.
One very attractive backup: college baseball, where the ballparks and level of play keep improving. In Phoenix, for instance, venerable Phoenix Municipal Stadium is home to the Arizona State University Sun Devils baseball program. Most recently the spring home of the Oakland A’s, Phoenix Muni became the full-time home of the Sun Devils in 2015 and was decked out with Sun Devils colors and branding. It’s one of our favorite spring venues, especially at night, when nearby Papago Park makes for a spectacular backdrop past left field. Bonus: Beer. Phoenix Municipal Stadium is on the east side of the Valley, right on the border of Tempe and within an easy drive for Giants, Diamondbacks, Rockies, Cubs and A’s spring-training fans.
Grand Canyon University, located in Phoenix near American Family Fields of Phoenix and shown above, is a delightful venue and definitely worth a visit. It’s a lovely spot to take in a game, and the Antelopes schedule always features plenty of top-40 opponents visiting the ballpark as well. It is a ballpark that compares favorably to other ballparks in the spring-training-heavy Phoenix area, as well as other upper-level NCAA ballparks. GCU Ballpark features chairback seating, a larger press box, an impressive concession stand with unique offerings, an entertainment deck that can be adapted for multiple kinds of events, a pro-level sound system, new batting cages, and an upper-level concourse featuring great views of the mountain landscape. It’s basically right down the road from American Family Fields of Phoenix. Be sure to hit a night game: sunsets viewed from GCU Ballpark can be spectacular.
If you want to take a longer day trip, the two-hour drive to Tucson may prove to be entertaining. The University of Arizona Wildcats play at Hi Corbett Field, one of the great old ballparks of baseball, opening in 1928. Much of the ballpark dates back to the 1930s, even though it’s been extensively renovated several times during the years—most recently in 1999, when a team store and a ticket office were added, and in 1997, when a $3.77 million renovation yielded new seating and expanded the clubhouses. It opened as home of the Class D Tucson Waddies and hosted Cleveland Indians and Colorado Rockies spring training along the way.
Your Florida options
In Florida you have an abundance of options. In Fort Myers, the Florida SouthWestern State College Buccaneers play out of City of Palms Park, the former spring-training home of the Boston Red Sox. The Bucs play in the Atlantic Sun Conference and schedule a surprisingly strong slate of opponents. This is junior-college baseball, but if you follow college baseball at all, you know some very good players will begin their careers at the NJCAA level. You can view the Buccaneers schedule here.
A smaller venue that will be unfamiliar to Red Sox and Minnesota Twins fans, but worth seeking out: Swanson Stadium, home of the Division I Florida Gulf Coast University Eagles of the Atlantic Sun Conference. The ballpark features a traditional shaded grandstand, and some good players have taken the field for the Eagles, including Boston Red Sox star Chris Sale. The likes of Ohio State, USF and the University of Miami have appeared at Swanson Stadium in recent years. You can view the FGCU schedule here.
Moving up the coast: two notable programs and venues in Tampa. The University of South Florida Bulls play out of USF Baseball Stadium, located northwest of downtown Tampa on the college campus. (Basically, it’s a short drive from Steinbrenner Field.) USF Baseball Stadium opened in 2011 and replaced Red McEwen Field, a small ballpark housing the Tampa Yankees for the first two years of that team’s existence. It’s not a program with a ton of tradition, but the American Athletic Conference features some good programs, and the Bulls schedule some tough nonconference games. You can view the Bulls schedule here. One unique feature: the facility features men’s baseball and women’s softball diamonds, separated by a shared concourse. Try to schedule a trip when both teams are home. College softball is a rocking experience. Heck, head there for softball even if the men are out of town.
Located right off downtown Tampa in a historic locale, University of Tampa Baseball Field is a small ballpark, but the Spartans program is solid, with plenty of NCAA tourney appearances in recent years, including championships in 2013 and 2015. Both Lou Piniella and Tino Martinez played here, and the D-II Sunshine State Conference features plenty of top talent. The ballpark is in a scenic locale, with the downtown Tampa skyline past the outfield, and it’s located near the former Tampa Bay Hotel, now Plant Hall on the University of Tampa campus and itself worth a visit. The Tampa Bay Hotel was home to Yankees spring training during part of the Babe Ruth era. Head to Plant Hall and check out the plaque commemorating where Babe Ruth allegedly hit his longest home run; it’s located by the business school. You can view the Spartans schedule here.
In Lakeland, the Florida Southern Mocs play out of Henley Field, built to serve the spring-training needs of the Cleveland Indians in 1925 and later the Detroit Tigers. It’s still a charming place to take in a college-baseball game. As noted, Florida Southern College now calls Henley Field home. It’s a good fit, even though the ballpark is several miles away from the scenic FSC campus mostly designed by Frank Lloyd Wright; the team plays in the competitive Sunshine State Conference and the program can boast of alumni like Matt Joyce, Lance Niekro and Brett Tomko.
There are plenty of other noteworthy college-baseball ballparks in Florida, but they’re not located in areas close to spring-training venues. Still, if you’re seeking a day trip in search of college baseball, check out University of Central Florida, Florida State University, University of Miami, Bethune-Cookman (playing out of historic Jackie Robinson Ballpark in Daytona) or Rollins College games.
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