What began in the early 1900s as a way to jump-start the spring tourism economies of Florida communities has grown into a baseball tradition. Affectionately called the Grapefruit League, 15 Major League Baseball teams head south each winter, bringing the sport’s best players to intimate stadiums, where fans get close to the action and share special moments with their favorite team at an affordable price.
Droves of people make the pilgrimage to the Sunshine State to watch big leaguers shake off the rust and prepare for the season ahead, but that wasn’t always the case. The first team to escape the cold was the Washington Statesmen, who staged a four-day camp in Jacksonville in 1888. The Philadelphia Athletics and Chicago Cubs followed in subsequent seasons, each lured to a new town by local boosters.
The league’s early years consisted mainly of informal workouts and one-off exhibition games to cover costs. It wasn’t until around 1914 that multiple teams settled into a set schedule of training and inter-team play, and the Grapefruit League was born. So named, as legend has it, because Brooklyn Dodgers manager Wilbert Robinson was hit with a grapefruit dropped from an airplane as a promotional stunt. The fruit exploded in his mitt on impact, showering him with pink pulp and juice.
Here’s a look at the present Grapefruit League teams with coastal locations that allow you to take in practices and games and then retire to your boat for the evening. They are organized clockwise from east to west around the Florida peninsula.
New York Mets
First Data Field, Port St. Lucie
The Mets’ home is a bit nostalgic by modern standards, as it was called Tradition Field. The 7,000-seat facility is a replica of Shea Stadium, the team’s former home in New York, and it lies in a commercial neighborhood bordering swampland rather than in a new entertainment district. A tiki bar shakes cocktails down the left field line, and fans enjoy a picnic area down the right field line. Renovations in 2012 added a high-definition scoreboard. Unique to the ballpark is the Bat House, a habitat for thousands of bats (the animal kind) that previously pestered players and fans.
Where to Dock: Sandpiper Bay Marina at Club Med, 772-335-7875
St. Louis Cardinals/ Miami Marlins
Roger Dean Chevrolet
One of two shared stadiums in the Grapefruit League emphasizes baseball efficiency rather than “luxury game-day experience.” The facility seats 6,800 with another 200 fans able to spread out a picnic blanket on the outfield’s grass berm. A limited concession area is located behind the main grandstand (there is no concourse ringing the ballpark). The stadium sees a lot of use throughout the season, so the covered party deck in right field is a hot ticket. Nearby sports bars in downtown Abacoa — just a short walk away — are regularly filled with fans.
Where to Dock: Admirals Cove Marina, 561-744-1700
Houston Astros/ Washington Nationals
FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm
Beaches, West Palm Beach
Brand new in 2017, this streamlined stadium (capacity 7,700) features inviting spaces and sightlines all around, starting at the 34,000-square-foot plaza that leads to the entrance on the third base side. Once inside, fans notice a number of signature areas including a suite level with six rooms for events and a party deck with 360-degree views of the stadium and practice facilities. The Craft Corner in left field offers 32 tap handles, and the Banana Boat Lawn allows ticketholders to bring a blanket and bask in the Florida sunshine while watching nine innings of play.
Where to Dock: Palm Harbor Marina, 561-655-4757; Old Port Cove Marina, 561-626-1760
Hammond Stadium, Fort Myers
Showcasing a terraced grandstand modeled after Churchill Downs (the venerable racetrack in Louisville, KY), Hammond Stadium impresses right off the bat. Palm trees, a large waterfall fountain and streets named for famous Twins greet fans when they enter the main gates. Part of the larger CenturyLink Sports Complex, the ballpark has an 8,730 capacity and entertains with third-base and right-field bars, two shaded sky decks for group outings and a kids’ zone with a bounce house. A trellised boardwalk encircles the field, leading to concessions and a retail store.
Where to Dock: Pink Shell Beach Resort & Marina, 888-222-7465
Boston Red Sox
JetBlue Park, Fort Myers
Often referred to as Fenway South, JetBlue Park has achieved a paradoxical reputation as traditional but also state-of-the-art. A number of the facility’s characteristics are taken from Boston’s home stadium, including a Green Monster wall in left field and a manual scoreboard. Southwest Florida influences include a canopy providing shade — it’s said to mimic a white cypress mound — and polished seashells worked into the brick foundation. A grass berm makes a great place to relax during spring-training games and brings the total seating capacity to 11,000. Just outside the ballpark, a statue of Ted Williams presides over it all.
Where to Dock: Legacy Harbour Marina, 239-461-0775
Tampa Bay Rays
Charlotte Sports Park, Port Charlotte
Everyone needs a team-building, spring-training escape, even if it’s only 100 miles south of the major league home field. And the Rays have a beauty, featuring 5,000 fixed seats and two berm areas that can hold 2,000 more fans. A center field tiki bar adds a festive touch, and for those with children, the Kids Clubhouse in right field has a playground area. A 19,000-square-foot wooden concourse stretches around the outfield to provide 360-degree mobility and impressive views of the field and bullpens. The Rays minor league affiliate, the Charlotte Stone Crabs, also call Charlotte Sports Park home.
Where to Dock: Gulf Coast Marine Center, 941-629-9666
Ed Smith Stadium, Sarasota
One of the most eye-catching facilities in the Grapefruit League, Ed Smith Stadium features Spanish-style porticos, stucco walls and decorative clay roof tiles that truly convey a South Florida feel. Hometown touches include refurbished seats from Oriole Park at Camden Yards, retired players’ numbers hung under the press box and suite area and crab cakes served at concession stands. The ballpark has a capacity of 7,500 and short foul territories that put fans close to the field of play. (Bring your mitt!) Berm seating, a picnic area and extended canopy offer a laid-back atmosphere.
Where to Dock: Marina Jack, 941-955-9488
Lecom Park, Bradenton
Originally built in 1923, Lecom Park was retro before retro was cool, with a palm tree-lined exterior and a Spanish mission-style grandstand. The park has undergone a couple of remodels over the years — expanding the restroom and concession facilities, adding a berm and covered bleachers in the outfield — but it still has the feel of an old-time, neighborhood Grapefruit League ballpark. Modern amenities include a boardwalk spanning the outfield with a barbecue area in right field and party deck in left field. New seats were added, bringing the total capacity to 8,500.
Where to Dock: Twin Dolphin Marina, 941-747-8300
New York Yankees
George M. Steinbrenner Field, Tampa
The Bronx Bombers’ southern home mimics the proportions and scalloped grandstand of the old Yankee Stadium. In fact, legend has it that George Steinbren- ner phoned Tampa during the ballpark’s construction and had an employee double-check the precise dimensions with a tape measure to confirm they were correct. With a capacity of 11,000, it’s large for a spring training facility and was the first to include luxury suites. Yankee touches include a walkway lined with the club’s retired numbers, plaques about each player’s career and a statue of “The Boss” outside the home plate entrance.
Where to Dock: Marjorie Park Yacht Marina, 813-259-1604
Spectrum Field, Clearwater
Considered by many to be the gold standard for spring training ballparks, Spectrum Field checks all the right boxes: front row seats are close to the action, the outfield berm lets you lounge with your family, a tiki bar in right field is a great place to grab a cold one, and groups can socialize in the picnic area. There are also luxury suites and a huge video screen. Sure, other stadiums share these elements, but at Spectrum Field they all work together to create a multifaceted but not cramped experience in an intimate facility seating 7,000.
Where to Dock: Clearwater Beach Municipal Marina, 727-562-4955
Toronto Blue Jays
Dunedin Stadium, Dunedin
This small, 5,500-seat facility is known for its friendly, easy-going atmosphere. Not only can you purchase a cold Labatt Blue draught on-site, but many fans come all the way from of Canada to attend games each year, increasing the homey and casual character of the place. The grounds contain three picnic areas and a grassy berm as well as air-conditioned skyboxes. See it as it stands now, because the stadium will reportedly undergo major renovations after the Blue Jays leave spring training in 2019.
Where to Dock: Caladesi Island State Park, 727-469-591