February and March are ideal months to visit Clearwater, Florida. It is not too hot, not too cold and, even better, the Phillies are there for spring training.
The list to follow is an excellent guide to both Phillies spring training and the Clearwater area in general. Whether or not you have ever been to Clearwater before, you should find this information very useful or, at the very least, entertaining.
However, be forewarned: spring training in Clearwater can be addictive and may turn into a lifelong habit.
There is currently no support group for spring training addicts, so managing this addiction will be up to you. Just remember to bring friends to share the fun.
Photo: Clearwater, Florida by Jenn Zambri
Everybody loves "free" and Phillies practices in Clearwater are just that.
Once the whole team has reported and before games begin, daily practices are held at the Carpenter Complex next door to Bright House Field. Practice usually starts around 9:00 a.m. and runs until about 1:00 p.m., weather permitting.
There are four outdoor baseball fields at the Carpenter Complex, arranged in a box pattern, and the bleachers in between are for fans to sit and watch. Usually all fields are in use at once, and players may hop between fields to work on different skills or with different staff and players.
You will be able to wander around to see what is going on at all four fields. Some activities you can watch include pop fly drills, pitching practice, run-down drills, fielding practice and, of course, batting. The sliding drills are especially fun to see, as the players put on special "sliding pants" to reduce resistance and risk of injury.
There are public facilities on the grounds as well, which include bathrooms and food vendors. The staff even sells some souvenirs. Parking is free as well, so stay as long as you like.
Also keep in mind that practices can be a good time to get autographs from players.
Photo: Jenn Zambri/ Ryan Howard at practice
Unlike practices, games at Bright House Field are not free. But they are fairly cheap. Prices run from $13 to $34 per ticket.
In previous years, getting a ticket to a spring training game was relatively easy and could be done at the last minute. However, since the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, spring training games are now much hotter items. Plan ahead and order tickets early.
Keep in mind when getting tickets that the home side at this ballpark is the third base side. So if it matters to you, you will know which side you prefer to sit on before buying.
Other games called "B" games mean the Phillies will be split into groups for the day. Some play in the regular game and others play the "B" game instead. Many of the "B" game players are those needing extra batting practice or players recovering from an injury and/or some sort of physical restriction.
If you see a "B" game listed on a schedule, those are sometimes played before regularly scheduled games at Bright House Field and are usually included with your ticket for that day. Other "B" games are played at the Carpenter Complex and are usually free and open to the public.
Photo: Jenn Zambri/ Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Derek Jeter
There are some really nice and interesting ballparks in Florida. When the Phillies have an away game, try going to see them at another park. Tickets are available through the home team web sites or in person at their box offices.
Here are the other Florida ballparks, with the approximate driving distances from Clearwater:
—Five miles, Toronto Blue Jays, Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, Dunedin, FL
—22 miles, New York Yankees, Steinbrenner Field, Tampa, FL
—42 miles, Pittsburgh Pirates, McKechnie Field, Bradenton, FL
—54 miles, Baltimore Orioles, Ed Smith Stadium , Sarasota, FL
—59 miles, Detroit Tigers, Joker Marchant Stadium, Lakeland, FL
—94 miles, Atlanta Braves, Champion Stadium, Lake Buena Vista, FL
—97 miles, Tampa Bay Rays, Charlotte County Sports Park, Port Charlotte, FL
—98 miles, Houston Astros, Osceola County Stadium, Kissimmee, FL
—128 miles, Boston Red Sox, City of Palms Park, Ft. Myers, FL
—128 miles, Minnesota Twins, Hammond Stadium, Ft. Myers, FL
—152 miles, Washington Nationals, Space Coast Stadium, Viera, FL
—178 miles, New York Mets, Digital Domain Park, Port St. Lucie, FL
—208 miles, St. Louis Cardinals, Roger Dean Stadium, Jupiter, FL
—208 miles, Florida Marlins, Roger Dean Stadium, Jupiter, FL
Of the closest ballparks, the Blue Jays in Dunedin is the easiest to get to. The Yankees in Tampa would be second. Steinbrenner Field is one of the nicer stadiums and has nice scenery with fountains, trees and a view of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers stadium across the street.
The Pirates' McKechnie Field in Bradenton is one of the oldest parks in the area, built in 1923. Although it was renovated in the early 90s, the park still boasts the original 1920s Spanish-mission style architecture, including the masonry, stucco and structural steel materials. The seats are super tiny and very close together for a "get to know your neighbor" feel.
There are also several stadiums in the Orlando-Disney area, including the Atlanta Braves' Champion Stadium and the Houston Astros' Osceola County Stadium. You could make this a combination trip if you would like to visit any Orlando-area attractions.
Some stadiums are very far away and should be considered only for overnight trips or by extremely adventurous fans.
Photo: Jenn Zambri/ Steinbrenner Field
Spring training is a great time to get autographs from players. The atmosphere is very relaxed and most players are in a good mood.
Depending on your level of dedication to this task, autographs can be obtained at practices, before and after games and even around town if you happen to bump into a player in public.
You can even get autographs from coaches and players on other teams if you wish. The photos on this slide show Reggie Jackson signing a ball and Jimmy Rollins waving hello.
One of my next articles will include a detailed list of the best ways and locations to get player autographs. Check back for that soon.
Photo:Jenn Zambri/ Reggie Jackson, Jimmy Rollins
Inside Bright House Field at the corner of left field is Frenchy's Tiki Pavilion. This full-service bar is open for every home game and is a great place to mingle with other fans, watch the game and have a cocktail.
You can even buy a game ticket in the "Tiki Terrace" section to guarantee a spot close to the bar. The stools which are directly at the bar are first come, first serve.
The bar service continues to run after the game as well. Some Phillies players have been known to stop by there to chat with fans or have a drink. Brett Myers, now with the Astros, was commonly found at the Tiki bar after games in years past. I also saw Ryan Howard pass by there after a game one time.
Photo: Jenn Zambri / Frenchy's Tiki Pavilion
The souvenir store at Bright House Field is called Diamond Outfitters and is located next to the ballpark’s west entry. You can enter the store both from inside and outside the ballpark, depending on game schedules.
Diamond Outfitters is a great place to shop for Phillies gear. They carry almost anything you can imagine such as t-shirts, hats, raincoats, umbrellas, pens, trinkets, pins, souvenir bats, balls and more.
And if you ever wanted a Phillies hat with a palm tree on it, this is the place. The store is open on non-game days as well, which is the perfect time to avoid large crowds.
Photo: Jenn Zambri/ Diamond Outfitters
This year, Bright House Field will host the Legends Game on March 13, 2011 at 5:30 p.m. to benefit the Children's Cancer Center.
The event is presented by the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association and will be attended by both former MLB players and national celebrities.
Some of the guests scheduled to appear this year are Hall-of-Famer Jim Bunning, Bob Boone, Darren Daulton, Von Hayes, Mickey Morandini, Steve Bedrosian, Jeff Kent, comedian Larry The Cable Guy and meteorologist Dave Osterberg.
You can order tickets online through the Phillies web site.
Photo: Nick Laham, Getty Images/ Darren Daulton
Unfortunately, at some point during your trip to Florida, there will come a time when there are no baseball-related activities going on. Take advantage of this opportunity and see what else Florida has to offer.
At Clearwater Beach, there is a nightly festival at Pier 60. The four-hour festival runs from two hours before sundown to two hours after. Jugglers, magicians and a variety of entertainers perform for the crowd that gathers each evening. There are also local vendors selling jewelry, art work and souvenirs at very good prices.
And, of course, there is the beach itself. Take a swim or simply relax on the white, powdery sand and soak up the warm sun-rays.
Photo: Jenn Zambri / Clearwater Beach Festival
The Clearwater area has much more to offer than just a beach. There are boat tours, dolphin watching, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, spas, an art center and lots of great places to shop.
Just outside of Clearwater, take a drive to Tampa. You can visit Busch Gardens or take in the nightlife at Ybor City.
About 15 miles north of Clearwater, check out Tarpon Springs and the Sponge Docks for shopping, eco-tours and authentic Greek cuisine. You can also take Greek Cultural Classes and Workshops to learn about the area's fascinating history and customs.
For a longer road trip, head northeast to Orlando. The two-hour drive is worth it if you are interested in Disney attractions, Sea World, Universal Studios and other fun family adventures.
Photo: Jenn Zambri / Clearwater Aquarium
Florida is a state rich in history. There are a wide range of options here to broaden your horizons.
The Florida Holocaust Memorial Museum and Educational Center in St. Petersburg is the third largest of its kind in America. Check out the photography and documentary exhibits collected from all over the world.
If your childhood dream was to be an astronaut, you will not want to miss the Kennedy Space Center located 45 miles east of Orlando. It is a long drive, but if you have the time, the history here is amazing.
Closer to Clearwater, you can visit the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa, the Dunedin Historical Museum or Heritage Village in Largo, which is an open-air living history museum featuring 23 turn-of-the-century structures.
Now pack your bags, grab some friends and prepare to have an amazing time in Florida!
Photo: MOSI Tampa/ Wikimedia Commons