Monday, February 4, 2008
Updated: February 9, 1:03 AM ET
Eccentricities of spring: ballpark quirks
By Josh Pahigian
Special to ESPN SportsTravel
Starting pitchers trotting out their wind sprints on the warning track during games.
Ace relievers taking the mound in the bottom of the third when the other team's starters are still in the game instead of the ninth.
Cleanup hitters batting atop the order to get their ABs in early and then call it a day.
Pimple-faced teens with jersey numbers that seem better suited for middle linebackers playing alongside the game's most recognizable stars.
Ahh, we're entering the parallel universe known as Spring Training once again.
But more than just presenting a version of the game so very different from its midseason form, the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues also showcase an assortment of ballparks that are worlds removed from their regular-season counterparts.
And within each of these little gems fans find at least one unexpected design flourish or object of local pride that signifies the park is a seamhead haven unlike any other.
This Travel Ten is dedicated to the most unusual of these Spring Training ballpark eccentricities those finishing touches that give spring wanderers occasion to pause and say, "You won't see that in the big leagues." Here are 10 favorite ballpark quirks for fans to marvel at (listed randomly, with Florida fields first, followed by those in Arizona):
1. Space Shuttle at Space Coast Stadium, in Viera, Fla.
At the spring home of the Washington Nationals fans find a unified ballpark theme that plays off the region's pride in the nearby Kennedy Space Center.
Most prominent among the park's many nods to the U.S. Space Program is the 13-foot-tall, 350-pound model space shuttle mounted in launch position on booster rockets outside the entry ramp.
"It's a reminder that everything we have in space starts right here," said Buck Rogers, general manager of the minor league Brevard County Manatees, the stadium's regular-season tenant.
Indeed, home plate sits just 13 miles from where the real shuttle lifts off, and on launch days Rogers and his staff gather with fans in the stadium's fourth-floor viewing area to watch the shuttle's ascent.
In addition to the faux shuttle, Space Coast Stadium features foul pole tributes to the lost crews of the Columbia and Challenger tragedies, as well as concession stands with names like "The Orbit Grill" and "The Loading Dock."
2. Waterfall at Hammond Stadium, in Fort Myers, Fla.
Another Grapefruit League yard that strikes a one-of-a-kind pose before fans even pass through its turnstiles is Hammond Stadium, the spring home of the Minnesota Twins.
After traversing a palm-tree-adorned path that leads from the parking lot to the stadium, fans find a delightful waterfall cascading into a clear reflecting pool, into which they can toss their lucky coins and wish for the home team to fare well in the season ahead.
Just beyond these glimmering waters, rises a regal stadium, which with its peaked roof and many arches often is likened to Churchill Downs.
From the seats inside, fans observe another water display a pond with a fountain in the middle beyond the home run fence in right.
3. Wind Screens at George M. Steinbrenner Field, in Tampa, Fla.
The miniature version of Monument Park that stands outside the entrance gates of George M. Steinbrenner Field may get most of the ink in the Spring Training travel guides, but equally impressive are the giant windscreens that spell out Y A N K E E S high above the swaying palms outside the stadium facade.
This bold tribute to the home team is the first thing any visitor notices upon arriving at this Yankee outpost in the Big Stein's home city.
Inside, meanwhile, fans find a playing field that mimics the dimensions of Yankee Stadium and white metal arches that replicate the famous exterior of the big stadium in the Bronx.
4. Tiki Bar at Bright House Field, in Clearwater, Fla.
Bright House Networks Field opened in 2004, introducing Sunshine State fans to a ballpark blueprint that borrowed heavily from design innovations already popular in the Cactus League.
The park has a large outfield seating berm and more conventional seating options that appear not just along the baselines, but surround the entire field.
More than just building upon these Arizona successes though, Bright House introduced another new type of seating innovation. The Tiki Bar, situated between the left field foul pole and the Phillies bullpen, provides an exciting, just-above-the-fence vantage point and a festive atmosphere that pays homage to Clearwater Beach's "Margaritaville" reputation.
5. Championship Flags at McKechnie Field, in Bradenton, Fla.
Despite the Pirates' regular season struggles in recent years, the snowbirds in Bradenton remain fiercely loyal to the team that's trekked to their city every spring since 1969.
A proud band of volunteers known as the "Bradenton Pirates Boosters" work the concession stands and turnstiles at McKechnie Field, while the ballpark itself remembers the home team's past glory with pennants on either side of the green batter's eye in center.
The gold flags signify seasons like 1979, in which the Pirates won the World Series; the black ones represent seasons like 1927, when they won the National League title; and the white ones commemorate campaigns like 1992, when they won their division.
6. Press Box at Maryvale Baseball Park, in Phoenix
As at many of the Arizona parks, the field is sunken below street level at Maryvale Baseball Park and seating options surround the entire field.
But the thing that sets the spring home of the Milwaukee Brewers apart is its long and irregularly shaped "press-box-on-stilts," which serves three important purposes.
First, it creates some of the best standing room in baseball, getting the press box out of the way so that those lingering on the concourse behind home plate can enjoy an unobstructed view of the game. Second, with the press box up above, a cooling breeze can flow more freely through the stadium at ground level. And third, the length and unusual pitch of the press box combine to create a larger than normal swath of shade for fans in the infield seats.
And the extra shade sure makes a difference to Midwesterners still working to get their tans in regular-season shape.
"It's just like cooking a Brat: Go moderate with the heat source and you'll fare well," said Brewers spokesperson Tyler Barnes. "You don't see too many Wisconsinites getting overcooked; they just work their way to a nice, golden tan."
7. Rocks at Phoenix Municipal Stadium
Arguments over which Cactus League facility offers the best outfield view usually come down to Scottsdale Stadium, where the Camelback Mountains rise majestically down the left field line, and Phoenix Municipal Stadium, where red rock formations loom just beyond the left field fence.
Because they rise so dramatically over the outfield, the stark rocks at "Phoenix Muni" earn it the nod here.
These iron-rich sedimentary formations, which sit within the bounds of the abutting Papago Park recreation area, were formed between 6 million and 15 million years ago. One formation is known as "Hole in the Rock," owing you guessed it to an opening in its center caused by countless years of erosion.
8. Cacti at Scottsdale Stadium, in Scottsdale
Aside from showcasing mountain views, Scottsdale Stadium also houses the Arizona Fall League Hall of Fame (where members like Derek Jeter and Todd Helton are celebrated) and the Scottsdale Sports Hall of Fame (where local athletes like Jim Palmer receive their due).
But the best tribute the stadium offers comes in the form of a cactus garden down the right field line.
The popularity of this prickly patch on the concourse as a pre-game point of interest among fans raises legitimate questions about why other Arizona parks don't do more to embrace the cactus as a ballpark accoutrement and about why the Florida parks seem to prefer royal palms to grapefruit trees beyond their outfield walls.
Editor's note: The live oak trees at Holman Stadium, in Vero Beach, Fla., originally represented No. 4 above, but with the Dodgers out in Florida and now taking up residence in Glendale, Ariz., we've omitted it. And the southwestern facade of Hi Corbett Field, in Tucson, Ariz., first occupied No. 7, but it's out since the Rockies moved to Scottsdale this season. So the list has been amended to a Travel Eight.
Josh Pahigian is the author of six books, including "Spring Training Handbook" and the forthcoming "101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out".