You may be itching to head to Clearwater, Fla., this year to catch the Phillies in action. You should. Clearwater is outstanding.
Grapefruiting 2016: The Basics
You still have time to book a flight to Tampa International Airport. Flights are relatively inexpensive to Tampa; for those who haven’t ever purchased plane tickets, try to find a price at or less than $150 each way. Any more and you’re paying too much.
I’ve linked flights for the March 4-8 range, via Expedia. Change the dates as you see fit, but as you can tell, roundtrip tickets are coming in at under $300. That’s good. Nonstop is better, but one-stop offers a larger variety of flight times. Also, if you can, look to fly on a Tuesday or Wednesday, as flights those days are typically cheaper.
If you’re up to it, you can always drive to Clearwater. From Philadelphia it’s a 17-hour trip. I suggest if you’re alone, don’t do it (unless you have plenty of time and preparation, and you’re a really good driver), but if you’re with a competent driving friend, you can hack it.
Best way to do 17 hours: Start after dinner and mark a potential stopping point six hours into the drive. As you get close to that point, gauge your ability to drive farther. If you have any doubts about your ability to drive past those six hours, end at the stopping point and rest for the night. The moment you even think you should be looking for a place to stop, look for a place to stop. Don’t risk being tired on the road. Not worth it.
The next morning, wake with some coffee and go the rest of the way with a couple short stops along the way. You’ll get into Clearwater late, so take it easy that first night. Then hit the fields hard the next morning.
Both times I visited spring training I stayed in Tampa, which was easy and convenient. Bright House Field is a 30-minute trip from Tampa, and much of that is spent on the Courtney Campbell Causeway, a long strip of road resting on top of Old Tampa Bay, opening pretty views of the water in both directions.
The airport is actually right by the causeway in the Northwest Tampa neighborhood. There are plenty of affordable hotels nearby, giving you easy access to the main road into Clearwater.
Thinking about staying in Clearwater? Be warned that you’ll be there during spring break. If you’re in your early 20s and want a bar and club scene with your baseball, maybe that’s a good bet. Otherwise, you may want to stay away (especially if you have children). Clearwater is one of the premiere spring break destinations in the country.
So here’s the quick rundown of life at Phillies spring training:
Bright House Field – Where the Phillies play spring games (and the Clearwater Threshers play during the season). It’s a beautiful little park with picnic areas (the berm), a “Tiki Terrace” in left field (a Frenchy’s) and club boxes. Tickets are $14 for standing room and the berm, $25 for the tiki terrace, $28 for traditional line seats, $30 for the premium box seats (around home plate) and $34 for the club level (above the action).
For casual fans the best bet is the berm. You can score cheap tickets, spread out a picnic blanket (get there early), and have a few hot dogs, sandwiches and beers while kicking off your shoes and watching a ballgame. Definitely worth it.
Fans who may want a good glimpse of prospects would be better off paying $28 for field box seats.
But if you’re doing a few games over a week, be sure to mix it up. Take in a game or two on the berm. Maybe check out the Tiki Terrace (you’re basically sitting at an outdoor bar for nine innings).
Carpenter Complex – My ideal spring is spending games on the berm and taking in early morning practices at the Carpenter Complex. Here, over four fields, every player in the organization practices drills and plays scrimmages. Fans can literally walk up to any of the fields, take a bleacher seat and watch any number of players as they stretch, practice and play just feet away. This, to me, is the beauty of spring training – at no other time will your access to baseball be so intimate.
Of course, if you’re hanging at the Carpenter Complex on a given morning, you’re likely to run into organization executives, coaches, advisors, you name it. You could literally be watching J.P. Crawford take a couple hacks, then turn around and there’s Charlie Manuel standing right in front of you.
Typically players are split into four groups that loosely mirror organizational league levels, and they’ll each take a different field. Sometimes they’ll scrimmage against each other, or against other teams’ players.
Food and Drink – Frenchy’s is the first name in Clearwater. It has a few locations, including its Rockaway Grill on Clearwater Beach, its South Beach Cafe on Gulfview Boulevard, and its Outpost Bar and Grill up in Dunedin. Frenchy’s also runs the Tiki Terrace at the ballpark. The point: open-air bar with cold beer and seafood for a warm day. Go there for beer, but be sure to order a grouper sandwich. That’s the speciality.
But no Phillies fan can go to Clearwater without stopping at Lenny’s. The iconic diner sits minutes away from Bright House Field and serves up mammoth breakfasts and lunches every day for Phils fans. Great eggs, delicious home fries (including kitchen sink home fries that include bacon, mushrooms, onions, tomatoes and cheese sauce), bagels, knishes and blintzes and, best of all, outrageous benedict dishes (the Redneck Benedict is a personal favorite).
Lenny’s is decked out in Phils paraphernalia, and on a March morning, you’ll surely be spending an hour or two of breakfast with a couple dozen of your neighbors from the northeast, or South Jersey, or West Chester. So yeah. Lenny’s is a must.
Beer snob like me? Go to Cigar City in Tampa. That’s a must. Note that you can hit the brewery for tastings, but Cigar City also has a brewpub in the city. 7venth Sun Brewing in Dunedin is well liked. I also recommend Saint Somewhere, in Tarpon Springs, for Belgian heads.
Oh, and by the way, there are Wawas in the Clearwater-Tampa area, because Wawa knows what it’s doing.
Getting Around – You can hop on the Jolley Trolley, which runs a Phillies Shuttle during spring training. The trolley also runs a couple routes in Clearwater Beach and along the coast. It can be restrictive, though, so if you’re planning on going elsewhere during your trip, rent a car. Yes it’s pricier ($30 or so per day), but you’re driving on your own time.
By the way, be sure to hit the beach one day. With its white sands, Clearwater Beach is worth it.
What’s Nearby – One benefit of being in Clearwater is that a couple other spring training sites are close by. The Blue Jays play in neighboring Dunedin, inside an old-school stadium with a little charm. The Yankees are in Tampa, playing in a miniature version of current Yankee Stadium. The Tigers are in Lakeland, an hour-and-15-minute drive east of Clearwater. And both the Pirates (Bradenton) and Orioles (Sarasota) are an hour-to-an-hour-and-15-minutes south.
With that in mind, when planning a trip, think about seeing two games in Clearwater and at least one on the road. March 4-6 is a perfect weekend of home-Dunedin-home, very easy. March 12-14 is a little tougher and gives you just one home game, but road games are relatively close (Tampa, Sarasota).
Most fans come over St. Patrick’s Day weekend. St. Patrick’s Day gives you a Thursday afternoon game at home; Friday is a home game; Saturday is in Dunedin; and Sunday is back home. That’s a heck of a run, but prepare yourself for a potentially higher-cost flight.
The final weekend of spring is also ripe with opportunity, as the Phils have home games on Friday the 25th and Saturday the 26th. Sunday they’re in Fort Myers to play the Red Sox, so call that your own personal off day. Then check the Phils in Dunedin on Monday the 28th before heading home.
If you want to do a Saturday to Saturday (with your family), I suggest March 19-26. You can see the Phils’ home game on the 20th, head to Lakeland on the 21st, watch a home game on the 22nd, then opt to take the four-hour road trip east to Kissimmee and Lake Buena Vista. The Phils are in Kissimmee (Astros) on the 23rd, then in Lake Buena Vista (Braves) on the 24th. Bonus: both are night games, so spend a morning with the family at Disney World. Then drive back for a Friday night game at home against the Jays before heading home Saturday morning.
Next time in Grapefruiting, I’ll look at some of the more intriguing storylines of the spring.