Spring Training: Hanging Out with the Ballplayers

Jimmy Burns hasn't missed spring training in seven years -- since he was in diapers. ``It's a family tradition,'' said his dad Jim, a credit manager from southern New Jersey. ``Jimmy talks about this trip to Florida all year long.''

``The little things make it special -- getting a foul ball, being able to come home and tell his Little League team how the relief pitchers chew bubble gum,'' added Bruce Selcraig, whose 9-year-old son Cole ranks their spring training trips from their Texas home to Arizona ``right up there after Christmas and his birthday.''

Whether in Florida or Arizona, baseball-crazed kids and their parents can do what they only dream about at home -- banter with the players, maybe pick up some tips for their own game. And parents don't have to pay much for the privilege, as little as $6 a ticket, nothing to watch practice.

The atmosphere certainly is more relaxed and the baseball players more accessible during March spring training than the regular season. That's especially true during practice sessions on sun-drenched days in Florida or Arizona, savvy spring training-goers say. ``The players pay attention to the kids and the old people, the old faithful fans,'' said Jim Burns.

But not always. One day last season, my daughter Melanie and I had a different spring-training experience, joining a sell-out crowd in Fort Myers, Fla., to watch the Yankees battle the Minnesota Twins. That day the autograph-seeking kids were elbowed out of the way by adults. It was frustrating for the disappointed kids and their parents.

That's why the Burnses like watching practices best. One day recently they arrived at practice early in Clearwater to watch their beloved Philadelphia Phillies warm up. Jimmy played catch with his dad, his grandpa watching, while they waited for the obliging players to come by and sign the kids' balls and bats.

``Extremely cool,'' declared 12-year-old Billy Kern, who is from Pennsylvania and also a Phillies fan. His dad Donald said the family opted for a Florida trip rather than skiing just so the guys could hang out with their favorite ballplayers. He added that his wife and teen-age daughter agreed only when promised they'd get plenty of pool time.

That's the other plus to a spring-training trip -- the chance for everyone in the family to do what he or she wants. While the fans spend every moment they can at the ball park or practice field, the rest of the gang can shop, laze by the pool, visit a theme park, play tennis or golf.

Spring training can also be an opportunity to grab some one-on-one time with your favorite young fan. Many grandparents -- like Jimmy Burns' or Billy Kerns' -- wouldn't miss it. The Selcraigs don't even bring the female members of their family along. ``It's a male sports orgy -- golf in the morning, baseball in the afternoon and NCAA basketball at night, with a little pool time in between,'' said Bruce Selcraig, who brings a buddy as well as his son. If his 4-year-old daughter May turns out to be a baseball fan, he'll bring her, too. ``We're working on making this an annual pilgrimage,'' he said, laughing.

That's what tourism officials like to hear. Spring training has become big business both in Florida, where the Grapefruit League numbers 20 ball clubs, and in Arizona, with its 10-club Cactus League. Fans stream into Phoenix from Chicago, Seattle and Denver, among other places. More than 1.5 million people attended spring-training games last year in Florida, coming from New York and Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Boston and St. Louis. ``And the number has been going up every year since 1996,'' said Nick Gandy, a spokesman for the Florida Sports Foundation.

That's why if you're planning a spring-training trip, it's wise to get tickets for your favorite team and a hotel room ahead of time (see Box).

The good news is the teams seem to be paying more attention to their young fans. Many clubs sponsor special clinics for kids. (Check ahead to see if your team has one scheduled when you plan to visit.)

In Florida, the Houston Astros built a playground and staffed it so parents can watch the games while their kids happily play in the enclosed area. In Arizona, the San Francisco Giants make sure kids get to take home some foul balls, said director of Arizona operations Bob Quinn.

At the same time, many parents feel more comfortable bringing their kids to a minor-league park, even letting the older ones wander on their own, than at a big-city stadium. ``It's a totally different crowd. They're into the game, not partying,'' said Gabriella Mullins, a former New Yorker, who moved with her family to Dunedin, Fla., where the Toronto Blue Jays play. ``It's old-fashioned baseball. And you all get caught up in it.''

But even that's not always enough to keep some fidgety kids happy. After two hot dogs, peanuts, a giant drink and five innings, 8-year-old Melanie announced she'd had enough baseball for one day. She was ready for the pool.

At least we beat the traffic out of the park.

The official site of Major League Baseball -- www.majorleaguebaseball.com -- has schedules for both the Cactus and Grapefruit leagues as well as tips for planning a trip to see games in Florida and Arizona. One area of the Web site is designed for kids.

Call the nonprofit Florida Sports Foundation for information on the 20 teams playing in the Grapefruit League at 850-488-8347 or www.flasports.com. To order a free Florida vacation guide, call 888-7FLA-USA or visit the Web site at www.flausa.com.

For information about hotel deals around Tampa Bay, where the World Series Champion New York Yankees play along with eight other teams in the surrounding five-county area, call the Tampa Convention and Visitors Bureau at 888-224-1733 or www.gotampa.com. To stay on the beach nearby, call the St. Petersburg Clearwater Area CVB at 800-822-6461 or www.floridasbeach.com.

Walt Disney World, where the Braves play at the Wide World of Sports complex and within a 40-minute drive of four other teams, offers a three-night, four-day package starting at $325 per person (based on quad occupancy) at Disney's All-Star Resorts that includes two spring training tickets and four-day unlimited pass to all of the Disney parks. Call 407-939-7810 or disneyworldsports.com.

For general Arizona information, visit the state's official tourism Web site at www.arizonaguide.com.

The Mesa, Ariz., Convention and Visitors Bureau allows fans to buy baseball tickets for HoHoKam Park Stadium, the Cubs' home turf, and hotel rooms with one call. Packages start at $89 per person. Ask for hotels where the kids stay free. Call 800-283-6372 or check www.mesacvb.com.

Sixteen Tempe, Ariz., properties -- 10 teams play in the area -- are offering spring training special rates with the option to buy Anaheim Angels tickets ahead. Call the Tempe Convention and Visitors Bureau at 800-283-6734 or visit the Web site at www.tempecvb.com.

The Holiday Inn Old Town in Scottsdale, two blocks from the Scottsdale Stadium, offers a $125 ``spring great rate.'' Call 800-695-6995.

(c) 2000, Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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