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Pete's Point: Spring training remains popular in Florida

Florida is a natural attraction for tourism during the winter months as millions of visitors annually enjoy warm weather conditions. The sand beaches are popular on each side of the state along the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico while the cent...

Minnesota Twins pitcher Mark Hamburger warms up for the seventh inning in spring training action at the Baltimore Orioles stadium in Sarasota, Florida, on Tuesday, March 17. Photo by Pete Mohs
Minnesota Twins pitcher Mark Hamburger warms up for the seventh inning in spring training action at the Baltimore Orioles stadium in Sarasota, Florida, on Tuesday, March 17. Photo by Pete Mohs

Florida is a natural attraction for tourism during the winter months as millions of visitors annually enjoy warm weather conditions. The sand beaches are popular on each side of the state along the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico while the center of Florida has many attractions like Disney World.

But in recent decades a big draw has become exhibition baseball at more than a dozen communities around the sunshine state.

Sarasota is a city on the west side of Florida that hosts the Baltimore Orioles spring training camp. The Orioles play at the recently remodeled Ed Smith Stadium, a park that was originally built in 1989 to host the Chicago White Sox and Cincinnati Reds before hosting the Orioles starting in 2010.

On Tuesday, March 17, the Orioles played a St. Patrick's Day game against the visiting Minnesota Twins. The game was a near sellout and provided plenty of action for the hundreds of Twins fans in attendance as they assumed an early 10-1 lead behind four home runs. The thousands of Orioles fans were entertained by their team's rally to cut the deficit to 10-9 before the Twins ended the threat for a win.

It was a fun experience, with ideal weather conditions, and nice seats behind the plate for just $18 each. The crowd of almost 8,000 rans fill the Orioles' recently remodeled stadium. The field also offers a chance for fans to watch future stars, talk with some players before games, and also see retired players around the complex returning to watch their former teams.

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Spring training has been a profitable trend for Major League Baseball, and also the hotels and restaurants in the communities that teams. The attraction of watching exhibition games has resulted in millions of dollars of tourism revenue.

A total of 35 Florida cities have hosted spring training over the years as all but six of the current MLB teams had been in Florida at one time over the past 127 years.

But the idea of teams preparing for the baseball season in the warm, dry Florida weather in February and March didn't have a successful start in the late 1880s.

Tough start in Florida

The original Washington Nationals traveled the farthest south of any baseball team when they hosted workouts in Jacksonville, Fla., in 1988. The Nationals struggled that year, and they didn't return to Florida for the next 15 years.

In 1889, the American League champion Philadelphia Athletics, and manager Connie Mack, were the first team to spend an entire spring training in Florida. But in 1903, the Athletics struggled, and the slump was blamed on its experience in Jacksonville, which included numerous distractions like a star player wrestling with a live alligator .

The Chicago Cubs arrived in Tampa in 1913 for the region's first spring training as the city promised to help cover players' expenses. A spring league was soon formed as besides the Cubs, the St. Louis Browns were in St. Petersburg, the St. Louis Cardinals in St. Augustine and the Philadelphia Athletics in Jacksonville. Florida was on the verge of becoming a hub of spring training activity. The Red Sox eventually arrived in Sarasota, the New York Mets in St. Petersburg and the Detroit Tigers in Lakeland.

Improved train and auto travel in the 1920s made the state even more accessible and popular. It was ideal for training camp with the state's ideal spring weather. The growth of tourism and winter residents were a nice connection to baseball in many communities around Florida. Training camps in Florida. known as the Grapefruit league, was taking shape.

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The New York Yankees had become the big MLB attraction, and they took over the Tampa Bay area in the 1920s. During World War II, teams did not have spring training in Florida due to travel restrictions. For three years, MLB teams were prohibited from training in the south to free up space on railroad lines to carry troops and supplies for the war.

Exhibition baseball in warm weather conditions eventually expanded west as Arizona became a second spring training destination. The Detroit Tigers were the first team to conduct training camp near Phoenix in 1929, and Arizona's Cactus League remains popular today by hosting 16 MLB teams.

Back in Florida, attendance for spring training games enjoyed steady growth over the past 50 years. A new baseball stadium in Lakeland attracted almost 5,000 fans to watch the Tigers beat the visiting Twins 4-2 in 1966. Many stadiums were remodeled and increased in size, including the Atlanta Braves, who connected their spring training location with the Walt Disney's Magic Kingdom in Orlando in the 1990s when they opened the largest spring training stadium with seating for more than 10,000.

Many teams changed locations and constructed new stadiums, including the Twins who moved to Hammond Stadium in South Fort Myers in 1991.

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