Spring training is a time of renewals and fresh faces. But it’s also a time for goodbyes, as we bid farewell to two longtime favorites, Champion Stadium and Don & Charlie’s.
This is the last spring for the Atlanta Braves training at Champion Stadium at ESPN Wide World of Sports, as the team preps for a move to a new Sarasota County ballpark, with a full slate of games beginning in February 2020. (More on that next week; we’re planning on attending a 2019 preview game on March 24.)
Champion Stadium opened in 1997 as the heart of a new Disney World sports complex. Disney officials didn’t envision the ballpark as a full-time spring-training venue, but rather as a spot for youth and college tournaments as well as occasional spring-training exhibitions. But when the Atlanta Braves expressed an interest in signing a long-term lease, the business plan changed: the Braves became a full-time spring tenant in 1998.
Since the Braves signed on, the Wide World of Sports complex changed and expanded, as the business of youth sports and tournaments exploded. The ballpark and training fields were quickly augmented by a host of other athletic offerings: a fieldhouse, soccer and football fields, and most recently a spiffy new arena. During the course of a year you’ll see football tournaments, lots of soccer tournaments, Pro Bowl activities, and more. The biggest change in the evolution of Wide World of Sports: an immensely popular series of national cheerleading and danceline competitions, which has turned into big bucks not only for the sports complex but for the surrounding resorts.
So, given how the focus of ESPN Wide World of Sports has changed, it’s no surprise the Braves were seeking a less frenzied spot for Florida operations, which include not just spring training but extended spring training, rehabs, rookie camps and more. Champion Stadium has been a good spring home for the Braves in terms of pleasing fans, but as teams seek more from their complexes than just a ballpark and practice fields, the more it became apparent a move was necessary.
We made one last run to Champion Stadium this spring. The Disney magic is still present at a Braves spring-training game, with plenty of fireworks and a plethora of concession offerings. The crowd was boosted by the presence of Phillies fans making the trek from Clearwater. Bryce Harper had just signed with Philadelphia, and although there was no chance Harper would be in the lineup, the Phillies fans were out in full force, contributing to an above-average crowd of 8,200+.
The ballpark experience was typically solid. The larger crowd was dispersed through the ballpark: the berms were packed, concession lines were solid but manageable, and the merchandise shop behind home plate was busy. Champion Stadium is an interesting ballpark from a design viewpoint: it opened as the only double-decker ballpark in the Grapefruit League, and there are typically several ways to get where you are going. With basically three sets of concourses (one behind the seating, one behind the grandstand, and one on the second level), a crowd of over 8,000 doesn’t really feel too crowded. And with plenty of points of sale, you’re never too far from a beer, a burger or some brisket.
If you can, we’d recommend one last run for a Braves spring-training game at Champion Stadium. There are five games next week, including a St. Pat’s Day match against the Houston Astros. Here’s the schedule.
In the end, we’ll miss Champion Stadium as a spring destination, partly because of the Disney location and partly because it’s a fine place to watch a game. But the Wide World of Sports complex of 2019 isn’t the same as the Wide World of Sports complex of 1998, and the Braves will surely find Sarasota County to be a better spot for Florida operations.
In Arizona, a Scottsdale landmark is closing next month, as Don & Charlie’s shutters its doors on April 10. Opening in 1981, Don & Charlie’s is a Cactus League institution. A spring-training visit means rubbing elbows with broadcasters (Bob Uecker, the voice of the Brewers, is a regular), front-office personnel, scouts, regulars, and fans of all sorts. The place teems with baseball memorabilia and history.
We made one last run to Don & Charlie’s with Mick Gillispie, a spring broadcaster for the Chicago Cubs. It was a pretty typical night at the Chicago-style steakhouse: a drink in the bar followed by a hearty dinner and lots of talk of the past and present of baseball. It is virtually impossible to be bored at Don & Charlie’s: the endless stream of drawings, photos, trophies, baseballs and magazine covers provides endless distractions, and signatures from the likes of Jack Brickhouse adorn the walls. (Let’s hope there’s a concerted effort to save some of the walls before the place is demolished.) Yes, Don was working the room.
The building has been sold to make way for a new boutique hotel, and there are plans for a new, scaled-back version of Don & Charlie’s restaurant on the premises. (Right now the plan is to call the hotel Don & Charlie’s.) The memorabilia will live on at the new hotel, and we’re guessing the new Don & Charlie’s will be as much a spring-training institution as the current restaurant. Again, you have the remainder of spring training and the beginning of April to make one last Don & Charlie’s run; we’d highly recommend it. We’d also recommend making a reservation; you can do so via the Don & Charlie’s website.