This is an entry in Fangirlish’s What Sports Mean To Me series, where our writers discuss memorable sports moments and how sports have impacted their lives.
The only good thing about the NFL season coming to an end with the Super Bowl are the words: “Pitchers and catchers report in ___ days.” For diehard baseball fans, it’s a reminder that their favorite sport is returning. For the casual baseball fan, like myself, it’s a reminder of one of my favorite traditions on the horizon: Spring Training.
Living in South Florida, I’m right where you want to be during February and March. Not only is it sunny and 75 on the normal, it’s home to fifteen Major League teams’ minor league squads and spring training homes within driving distance. There’s no better way to spend February and March than in a ballpark with a beer in your hand, a nice breeze, and the sun shining. There’s something so magical and calming about those spring days that makes it a must, even for the casual baseball fan.
Here’s the thing, I live 10 minutes from where the New York Mets host Spring Training. I’ve been to that ballpark too many times to count, be it for Spring Training or minor league games. A few years back I even covered Mets Spring Training for a local paper. So you could say the Mets have a special place in my heart. But I’m no Mets fan (lest Lizzie murder me). I’m a Tigers fan, which makes those yearly Tigers games in PSL a must for my dad and I.
Sports are the cornerstone of my relationship with my dad. We’re not just fans, we’re diehard fans. We travel (sometimes far) for games or practices. We watch religiously. We get too excited and too angry. That passion for sports is clearly something my dad passed on to me.
So as we make the transition from our favorite sport, football, going on hiatus, spring training is just the thing we need to distract us. One of my favorite things about attending spring training games at First Data Field happens right as you walk through the gates. They have a pitching game for fans where you can time your fastball. And it’s become something my dad and I immediately gravitate to. Well, first we grab that first beer, then we give the pitching game a try. While my dad’s fastball seems to decline year after year, mine is on the uptick. Not that any major league player would blink at my 45-mph fastball. But that’s definitely one of the things we look forward to most every year.
Then there’s the game. The ballpark is beautiful. The weather is sunny and breezy and everything you could ask for in late February/early March. It’s actual paradise. We always gravitate to the seats near the Tiki Bar, where they make the best rum buckets a girl could ask for, right down the left field line. They’re perfect seats for an afternoon of daddy-daughter fun that is one of the highlights of my year.
But living 10 minutes away from a ballpark isn’t enough for us. We’re always up for a road trip. It’s pretty much ingrained in us. The Tigers host Spring Training in Lakeland, which is about 2 hours from me. And trips with my dad to Lakeland to watch the Tigers have become a Spring Break tradition.
Lakeland is a good two and half hour drive from the Treasure Coast, and the journey is half of the fun. We’re people that love road trips. Every year we drive 19 hours to Bourbonnais for Chicago Bears Training Camp (more on that in a later post), so less than 3 hours is a cakewalk. When we get to Lakeland, we always stop at this Sunoco about a mile away from Joker Marchant Stadium and grab a 12-pack of beer. We do a little pregame tailgating in my car, where shenanigans ensue, before making our way into the ballpark for some more fun. Then there are the shots. And the giftshop, which makes for a deadly combination.
In comparison to First Data Field, Joker Marchant Stadium feels much larger on a grander scale. It certainly helps when you’re at your home team’s ballpark. But the experience at Joker Marchant is on an entirely different level. Maybe it’s because it’s one of the few times we’re the home team. (We’re forever the away team whether it’s for Bears games, Michigan games, Tigers games, you name it.) But being at your home stadium gives you that extra uptick in excitement. Being surrounded by thousands of people that are your sports family, it’s special.
And the ballpark itself is stunning. It’s massive, it’s busy, and it’s always packed — even on weekdays when we like to escape to Lakeland. Whether it’s box seats or the berm or the runway, there’s not a bad seat to enjoy a beautiful spring day in Florida.
There’s nothing like Spring Training. Thousands of baseball fans travel from up north down to Florida or Arizona to experience it. There’s a magic in that southern spring air. There’s optimism when everyone’s in first place with an entire season ahead of you. And I’m lucky enough to live right in the center of it.
What’s your favorite sports traditions? Share your thoughts here and on social media using the hashtag #MySportsTradition!