FSL on receiving end of top-quality stadiums

Grapefruit League means the best of everything for league

(Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

By Paige Schector / MLB.com | March 14, 2006 3:00 AM

Forgive Florida State League president Chuck Murphy for his exuberance regarding stadiums in his charge, but he's suitably attached to all of them.

"All of them are outstanding and unique," Murphy said. All but one of those parks (Jackie Robinson Ballpark in Daytona Beach) are used for Spring Training in the Grapefruit League, and most of them are state-of-the-art in design and/or architecture.

The Cubs boast one of the strongest historical draws in all of the Minor Leagues on City Island. Jackie Robinson attended Spring Training at the former Daytona City Island Ballpark. In 1946, Robinson came to camp with the Montreal Royals, the Brooklyn Dodgers' Triple-A club, since he was banned from playing in Jacksonville and Sanford. His first game was against the parent club.

In 1990, the park was renamed Jackie Robinson Ballpark. Fourteen years later, the Daytona team and the city combined on a $1.5 million renovation that included a retro-style scoreboard, the Robinson museum and a riverwalk. Incoming assistant director of broadcasting Anthony Oppermann finds himself particularly fond of the view of the Halifax River and the International Speedway Bridge to be had from the third-base bleachers.

But fans aren't left out of the mix. Daytona fan Front Row Joe, who has been to 718 consecutive home games, gets to change a fence sign detailing his streak every contest. Those fans with a tattoo of mascot Cubby get free lifetime admission. And between innings, popular promotions range from a dance contest to burrito eating to post-game "Launch-a-Ball."

It's an atmosphere not lost on the top brass in the league, including general managers Buck Rogers (Brevard County), Emily Christy (Vero Beach) and Steve Gliner (Fort Myers). "I think the Daytona Cubs have the best location for a ballpark anywhere in Minor or Major League Baseball," Rogers said.

By contrast, check out Brighthouse Field, home to the Clearwater Threshers. Murphy deems the stadium "the newest and perhaps the most ostentatious stadium in all of Minor League Baseball." The environs enable the club to provide across-the-board entertainment, with a playground, bounce house and speed pitch for children and an outdoor Tiki Pavilion for adults that's occasionally open when the team is out of town. The park's 360-degree concourse provides a view from every angle.

"It is not only gigantic in proportion, but the game can be seen at all times, even when standing in line at the concession stand or shopping in the gift shop," Murphy said.

"The Tiki Bar is something that's truly a fan magnet," Rogers added. Count Lakeland media coordinator Owen Rosen, Gliner and Christy in as admirers, too.

Brevard County's Space Coast Stadium lives up to its name -- U.S. shuttle and rocket launches are visible from the neighboring Kennedy Space Center and there is a small replica of the shuttle at the stadium.

"The shuttles are launched about 20 minutes away, giving our fans and staff an up close and personal view," Rogers said. And lest fans forget about the American pastime, the legendary Casey at the Bat also stands at the park.

Speaking of landmarks, Threshers assistant general manager Jason Adams and Gliner appreciate how the Tampa Yankees' Legends Field harkens back to the parent club's home in the Bronx, complete with a computerized scoreboard with players' pictures and statistics and a mini-Monument Park. The field shares a highway bridge and parking with neighboring Raymond James Stadium, home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The throwback nature of the layout of Vero Beach's Holman Stadium recalls the 1930s or '40s to Murphy. He also credits Lakeland's Joker Marchant Stadium with having the league's most baseball-oriented design, including prominent pictures of the Tigers' most famous players, such as Al Kaline and Alan Trammell. Until recently, the stadium didn't even have advertising billboards in the outfield.

Two teams -- the Palm Beach Cardinals and Jupiter Hammerheads -- play at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter. "There is a game every day during the season being played on their field," Murphy said. "That is a groundskeeper's nightmare; however, they keep the field in tip-top shape all season."

Fort Myers' Lee County Stadium boasts a "Churchill Downs" feel, according to Gliner, with a huge fountain cascading water down a wall of rocks and palm trees lining the way to the stadium. Some of the park's restrooms contain painted murals. Adams and Murphy appreciate the effort, with the latter stating that it feels more like a resort than a stadium.

Vero Beach's Holman Stadium also provides a unique look and feel.

"The stadium is sort of like a bowl as the right and left field areas are berms and surrounded by palm trees," Murphy said. "There are no dugouts and the players sit in the open on benches in front of the stands with the home team on the third base side. They are really close to the playing area."

"Sometimes it takes a bit of a learning curve for the players and coaches to realize that they are so exposed," Christy admitted.

St. Lucie's Tradition Field and Dunedin's Knology Park have been renovated recently. The Mets' ballpark now sports bright blue awnings matching the team's trademark color, and the Blue Jays' stadium added new offices with a viewing balcony on the first-base side. But maintaining its classic look is Ed Smith Stadium, one of the oldest complexes in the league, which plays host to the Sarasota Reds.

"In general, our league is interesting because we have Major League-caliber parks due to most of our clubs playing at Spring Training sites," Rosen said. "Then we have Daytona, which is a nice changeup, due to it being more of a traditional Minor League park."

Virtually every stadium serves up a trademark item on the menu, including the gourmet hamburgers and chicken sandwiches sold for 30 years by Tigers concessions manager Kay LaLonde in Lakeland, apropos Philly cheese steaks at Brighthouse Field, the world-famous Dodger dog in Vero Beach, bratwurst and funnel cakes at Space Coast Stadium, barbecue in Tampa and four different themed foods at sidewalk concession stands at Lee County Stadium.

Also of note, St. Lucie's silent auctions allowing fans to bid on game-worn jerseys which are then autographed for the winning bidders, dog day afternoons for pets at Roger Dean Stadium, the airplane hangars in Lakeland and Dunedin's blue jay mascot, which is "probably as authentic as you can make a costume," according to Murphy.

Paige Schector is a staff writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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