In Florida, myriad teams throughout the Grapefruit League are competing in drastically renovated (and in one case, brand-new) facilities. These changes to the Spring Training landscape will have repercussions in the Florida State League, the Class A Advanced circuit whose season begins after the Major Leaguers head north.
Taken together, these changes do much to solidify Florida's long-term Spring Training future after years of steadily losing ground to Arizona's Cactus League. So what's new?
-- Steinbrenner Field, home to the New York Yankees and their FSL counterpart Tampa, underwent a $40 million renovation prior to the start of Spring Training. Changes include a new main entrance, new seats and a wide variety of group areas.
"[Fans are] going to be able to sit and stand in social spaces that didn't exist before," Yankee Global Enterprises senior vice president Anthony Bruno told the Tampa Bay Business Journal. "They can now enjoy the game the way today's fans enjoy the game -- they're talking with friends. They're interacting with their social media."
Steinbrenner Field opened in 1996. The cost of the renovation project was split between the Yankees, Hillsborough County and the Tampa Sports Authority.
-- Joker Marchant Stadium, located on a site that originally housed a World War II-era U.S. Army flight school, opened in 1966. Throughout that time, it has hosted Detroit Tigers Spring Training as well as the FSL Lakeland club. The Flying Tigers spent the 2016 season at nearby Henley Stadium as Joker Marchant underwent an extensive overhaul. The team's press release touting the renovations promised "more" of just about everything -- including shade, box seats, air-conditioned spaces, concession stands, restrooms and premium and group seating.
The "new" ballpark, now officially named Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium, is open for business. The Ledger, a local newspaper, called it a "community gem," holding it up as a positive example of a public-private partnership. The renovations cost an estimated $48 million, with the Detroit Tigers, state, city and county all contributing.
-- Ballpark of the Palm Beaches officially opened on Feb. 28 as the new Spring Training home of both the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals. This sprawling complex, located in West Palm Beach on land that had been utilized as a garbage dump, joins Jupiter's Roger Dean Stadium as the only Grapefruit League facility hosting multiple Major League organizations.
Unlike Roger Dean Stadium, home of the Palm Beach Cardinals and Jupiter Hammerheads, the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches will not host any FSL teams this year. Its construction did precipitate changes to the league, however. The Nationals previously spent Spring Training at Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Florida; their departure prompted Brevard County to lease the facility to the U.S. Specialty Sports Association. This left Space Coast Stadium's FSL occupant, the Manatees, without a home. They relocated to Kissimmee (former home of the U.S. Specialty Sports Association) and are now the Florida Fire Frogs.
-- Tradition Field, Spring Training home of the New York Mets and regular-season home of St. Lucie, is now known as First Data Field. This 29-year-old ballpark, no matter what you call it, may become the next Florida facility to receive a major uplift. As the St. Lucie Mets noted in their naming-rights press release, "In November, the St. Lucie County Commissioners unanimously approved a new Facilities Use Agreement with the Mets to provide $55 million in renovations to First Data Field that will keep the Mets in Port St. Lucie for the next 25 years. Proposed improvements to the stadium will include an outfield boardwalk, a new entrance, new major league and minor league clubhouses, offices and locker rooms."
However, these improvements are contingent on an additional state grant of $20 million. On Jan. 24, the local TC Palm reported that "If the county receives the $20 million state grant, construction would start after this spring training and last for two years. Work would be scheduled around both spring training and the minor league St. Lucie Mets' schedule to avoid interrupting or relocating games."
-- McKechnie Field, Spring Training home of the Pittsburgh Pirates and regular-season home of the Bradenton Maruaders, is no longer known as such. On Feb. 10, it was announced that the 93-year-old, extensively renovated ballpark will now be called LECOM Park.
LECOM stands for Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, which has campuses in Pennsylvania and Bradenton. The new name comes after 50 seasons with the McKechnie Field moniker, which was bestowed in honor of Pennsylvania native-turned Hall of Fame manager-turned Bradenton resident Bill McKechnie. The McKechnie name still lives on at the ballpark in the form of the Bill McKechnie Home Clubhouse.