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Spring Training Guide

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Even if attending a spring training game is merely an excuse to ditch work and drink beer during the day in an acceptable manner, you might as well do it in style. Our spring training guide for the Tampa Bay Rays, Pittsburgh Pirates and Baltimore Orioles has you covered for everything from parking to the best places for pre and post-game partying. We also walk you through the top spots to eat and drink inside the stadium and, especially for you people just there for the party, which players to watch.

—By Wade Tatangelo and Brian Ries


TAMPA BAY RAYS
charlotteCharlotte Sports Park, 2300 El Jobean Road, Port Charlotte, 941-206-4487, tampabay.rays.mlb.com

Pre-Game: With the closing last year of the nearby Joe Cracker Sportgrille, nearby watering holes are a little scarce, unless you want to stop in at the typical chain locations. You’ll find plenty of those up El Jobean Road surrounding the Port Charlotte Town Center Mall, as well as a few independent outposts that might slake your pre-game thirst.

Parking: The stadium has a lot across from the stadium that should provide plenty of parking for spring training games, at and easy $7 per car.

Who to watch: For the fourth time in the past six seasons, the Rays made the playoffs by finishing third in the American League East as a wild card team. Thanks to a couple key surprises, let the World Championship talk begin. The AL’s 2012 Cy Young winner David Price and his 100 mph fastball was not traded and Grant Balfour has returned, this time as the closer, joining All-Star Matt Moore for one of the bestr pitching staffs in the majors. The impressive roster is rounded out by homer-hitting fan favorite Evan Longoria at third, 2013 AL Rookie of the Year Wil Myers in the outfield as well as returning All-Star Ben Zobrist, an infielder/outfielder who has mostly been the Rays second baseman.

Eat: Besides the usual concession, featuring dogs, brats, burgers, cheesesteaks and the like, you can also find some tasty smoked brisket and pulled pork sandwiches at some of the specialty outlets. You can also get Chick-Fil-A chicken sandwiches, as long as you don’t go to a Sunday game. If you have kids along, there’s a concession stand geared to little appetites right next to the playground area.

Drink: If you want something a little different than the usual refreshing plastic cups of mass-market beers, there are premium beers available at a variety of locations throughout the park. Your best bet is to make for the thatched roof of the Tiki Hut, where you can slake your thirst with a bigger selection, including cocktails and frozen concoctions that are surprisingly well-priced compared to many stadiums.

Post-Game: For an elegant end to your spring training day, head to the Perfect Caper (121 E. Marion Ave., Punta Gorda, 941-505-9009, theperfectcaper.com) in Punta Gorda, a restaurant that has garnered enough awards – including nominations for several national James Beard Foundation nods – to make it a destination for Rays players searching for serious food.
Also on the high end is River City Grill (131 W. Marion Ave., Punta Gorda, 941-639-9080), a steakhouse that has played host to Joe Maddonover the years. Those ball players – and managers – need their protein.
For a more casual, and fun, post-game celebration, try the Celtic Ray (145 E. Marion Ave., Punta Gorda, 941-916-9115, celticray.net), where you can enjoy some Irish brews while enjoying live music or comedy, depending ont he night.


BALTIMORE ORIOLES
oriolesEd Smith Stadium, 2700 12th St., Sarasota; $8-$32; orioles.com

Pre-Game: For all the charms inside the ballpark and its proximity to bustling downtown Sarasota, there’s really nothing to do, and by do, we means places to drink, within walking distance of Ed Smith Stadium. So why not arrive early and enjoy a picnic? Pre-game picnics are available at one of two outdoor locations. The Left Field Bullpen Perch and the Right Field Bullpen Perch are both great spots for some pre-partying, especially for groups of 20 to 200. Pricing, which includes a traditional ballpark menu, starts at $38 per guest. For more information call 893-6300.

Parking: Arrive early and parking – 1,800 spaces – is available for $9 in several lots on and surrounding the Ed Smith Stadium complex. But since its capacity is about 8,500, there’s a good chance you’ll be paying more than $9 and parking in someone’s lawn. Ed Smith Stadium isn’t surrounded by Sarasota’s most posh neighborhoods but they are safe and you and your vehicle should be, too, regardless of where you find parking. That said, cabbing it from home, your hotel, or one of the downtown Sarasota parking garages might not be such a bad idea, either, especially if, like us, you consider Grapefruit League games a great excuse for an afternoon of continuous alcohol consumption.

Who to watch: The Orioles won a respectable 85 games last season – down from 93 the year before – but continued to wallop the ball, leading the majors with 212 home runs. Sluggers Chris “Crush” Davis (MLB home run king with 53), Adam Jones (33 home runs), J.J. Hardy (25 home runs), Matt Wieters (22 home runs) are all serious long-ball bashers with Manny Machado, a Gold Glove Award-winning third basemen, leading the AL in doubles with 51. As for pitchers, check out starter Ubaldo Jimenez, acquired this winter from the Cleveland Indians, he can throw a 100 mph heater and was a MLB All-Star in 2010.

Eat: Inside Ed Smith Stadium you will find a signature dish, crab cakes, which are decent but should disappoint anyone who has ever spent anytime enjoying these edible delights in Baltimore. Café 54 offers guests a variety of Boar's Head sandwiches and wraps among other menu items including Chick-fil-A products in a climate-controlled setting. The cafe is located just inside the home plate entrance to the ballpark. Other than that, it’s basically the usual lineup of hot dogs, burgers and chicken fingers, nachos and fries, along with bags of peanuts and Cracker Jacks. Up on the second level, you'll find stands selling frozen lemonade and fruit smoothies, along with funnel cakes.

Drink: Unlike the area’s other spring training stadiums, Ed Smith puts a premium on offering drinking spots, which, like a nightclub, can only be entered if you pay a cover charge. The Left Field Pavilion features seats, drink rails and bistro tables facing the field but it will cost you, with tickets – in addition to the regular ticket you already purchased – starting at $15. The Third Base Lounge, along the third base side on the ballpark's second level, offers an even better look at the action plus a climate-controlled bar and premium outdoor seating, with tickets starting at $30. Three World Series Suites, found on the ballpark's second level on the first base side, and Home Plate Suite, are also available for rent. For availability, or to make a reservation, at any of these exclusive spots call 893-6300 or visit orioles.com/spring. Of course, you could also just visit one of the many concession stands in the stadium or sit back and buy a beer from the sweaty guy slinging ’em right next to your seat. Vending of alcohol in the stands stops at the end of the 7th inning, or three hours after the scheduled first pitch, whichever comes first. Concession stand sales of alcohol stop at the end of the 8th inning, or at three and a half hours.

Post-Game: Right across the street from Ed Smith is the Jager Tavern & Grill, home of the Jager Burger, a lively pub that fills up quick after a game. Ed Smith Stadium is also just a couple miles from downtown Sarasota, but thanks to the closure of the beloved Sports Page Bar & Grill, the entertainment district has a plethora of restaurants – especially Italian eateries – and not a single sports bar. Old School Bar and Grill (1991 Main St., Sarasota; 915-4695 facebook.com/OldschoolSarasota) is close, though, with a full bar and fun, late-night food like slices of pizza, burgers, wings and pulled pork sandwiches. The indoor/outdoor establishment also has plenty of flat-screen TVS. Of course, folks paying big bucks to rent out the Home Plate or World Series Suites might want to make a reservation at say, The Bijou Café (1287 First St., Sarasota; 366-8111; bijoucafe.net), a Sarasota fine-dining institution nestled in the heart of the theater and arts district.


PITTSBURGH PIRATES
mckechnieMcKechnie Field, 1611 9th St., W., Bradenton; $12-$24; 747-3031; pirates.com

Pre-Game: The top spot for pre-game action in Bradenton this season will most likely be the new Motorworks Brewing (1014 9th St. W., 896-9892; motorworksbrewing.com). From craft beers and liquor libations to lawn games and flat-screen TVs (plus quality pub grub from a food truck parked out back), this spacious production brewery and bar pretty much has it all. Also within walking distance of McKechnie Field is Darwin Brewing Co. (803 17th Ave. W.; 343-2165; darwinbrewingco.com). The offshoot of Sarasota brewpub Darwin's on 4th, it just might be open by the end of spring training.

Parking: There’s more parking than in years past available behind McKechnie Field and near the ballpark at local businesses.  The Pittsburgh Pirates also recently purchased the Popi's Place property at the corner of 17th Avenue and Ninth Street West adjacent to the main entrance of McKechnie Field. The location of the restaurant will be used as a parking area. Another option, especially for those interested in some pre-game shopping, is the Village of the Arts, an artist colony with a bunch of funky shops – and a few restaurants – located within walking distance to the northwest of the main entrance of McKechnie Field.

Who to watch: Pittsburgh is coming off its first winning season, and playoff berth, since 1992, with a team that could easily return to the post-season. Big stars include reigning NL MVP, centerfielder Andrew McCutchen, fellow All-Star, third baseman Pedro “El Toro” Alvarez, as well as RHP Gerrit Cole, the starter who was named NL Rookie of the Month for September and can hurl a fastball 102 mph!

Eat: McKechnie Field doesn’t really have any signature dishes but offers plenty of what we’ve all come to love and expect from a ball park, including cheesesteaks, Italian sausages, Italian ice, pretzels and more along The Boardwalk, which, built last year, conveniently wraps around the outfield. The McKechnie Snack Station, in the outfield concessions building, is where you can create your own nachos. The Food Court in the area behind home plate and The Promenade, located next to Ninth Street along the third base side, also offer ample selections of stadium standards. The Bullpen Bistro, on the left side of the ball park, covers all the bases with hotdogs, nachos, popcorn, peanuts and Cracker Jacks.

Drink: The tiki-style, full-liquor Kona Bar is the top spot to visit on The Boardwalk. In fact, many party people spend the entire game there. In addition to an awesome atmosphere and reasonably priced libations, the Kona Bar area also offers a nice view from just above the centerfield wall. Elsewhere, The Yuengling Plaza Bar serves Yuengling beers, select cocktails, and yards of beer. Steel City Spirits has cocktails and a complete wine bar of every wine offered at McKechnie Field. The Pitt Stop is home to the largest selection of beer in the ballpark, including craft, domestic and imports. In-progress Darwin Brewing Co. will serve its beers at McKechnie Field once the Bradenton brewery opens, says Matt Cornelius, Darwin’s director of operations, who added that the Pirates are interested in serving other local brews as well. All alcohol sales stop after the first pitch in the top of the eighth inning.

Post-Game: For many, a visit to McKechnie Field is merely a warm-up for a bar crawl down Old Main Street (aka 12th St. W.). This relatively short strip, which runs from Manatee Avenue, south to the Manatee River, features the wonderfully rowdy row of Corks’ Cigar Bar, The Distillery, O’Brick’s Irish Pub and Martini Bar, The Lost Kangaroo, McCabe’s Irish Pub, Old Main Pub and Pub Eighty Eight. Families, and discerning Italian food enthusiasts, will want to head directly to Fav’s Italian Cucina (419 Old Main St.; 708-3287; favsitaliancucina.com), while those looking to enjoy drinks and dining in a waterfront setting that offers spectacular sunset view should follow Old Main Street all the way south to Pier 22 (1200 1st Ave. W.; 748-8087; pier22dining.com).

Last modified: February 26, 2014
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