A Major Experience (At A Minor Price)
Tomorrow's future baseball stars-up close and personal-are scattered throughout Florida's best farm club ballparks.
By Brett Ballantini - Thursday, May 25, 2017
Until 1993 and the debut of the Florida Marlins, minor league baseball was as good as it got when it came to hardball in the state. But even with two MLB teams today (the Tampa Bay Rays joined the majors in 1998), Florida still boasts the best minor league baseball in the country. The state hosts the 12-team, Class A league, the Florida State League as well as two Class AA teams.
Now, 14 minor league teams make for a lot of baseball—and a lot of baseball parks. Because catching every one of them would melt the tread on your tires in the Sunshine State’s summer heat, here’s a guide to Florida’s top five minor-league ballparks. See you in the grandstands!
Blue Wahoos Stadium
351 W Cedar St., Pensacola
Home of the Pensacola Blue Wahoos (Cincinnati Reds affiliate)
Class AA, Southern League
378 miles from Ocala
Perhaps the most spectacular ballpark in all of Florida is nestled on Pensacola’s waterfront—unfortunately, it’s a robust five hours on Interstate 10 from Ocala.
But if you can make the trip, this six-year-old, $28-million complex impresses with its panoramic view of Pensacola Bay alone. And if you don’t think a 5,038-capacity stadium can compete with the big boys, consider that in Blue Wahoos Stadium’s debut year of 2012, ballparks.com named it Ballpark of the Year, beating out the likes of the new Miami Marlins Park and the debut of the sprawling Boston Red Sox complex in Fort Myers. A few years haven’t tarnished the park: In a 2016 reader poll, ballparkdigest.com placed Blue Wahoos Stadium second among all 30 Class AA parks.
Co-owner, Florida native and PGA tour champion Bubba Watson put a personal stamp on the team. The Blue Wahoos’ home-plate restaurant was rechristened as Bubba’s Sand Trap, and there’s a signature grilled cheese sandwich named in his honor at the concession stands.
A distinctive park innovation is repainting the yellow foul poles pink for breast cancer awareness, making it the only field in all of professional baseball with pink poles. And if a hitter really gets ahold of one to left field, his home run could land in Pensacola Bay, in a scene reminiscent of McCovey’s Cove in San Francisco.
Overall, Blue Wahoos Stadium leans heavily on its picture postcard views and less on ballpark accouterments. But with party decks in the outfield and fresh seafood concessions (including a shrimp poboy and a fried cod sea dog) to fill your belly, who cares?
Tickets: $6.97 (standing room in the outfield’s Hill-Kelly Hill) to $11.62 (box). Call (850) 934-8444, email Tickets@BlueWahoos.com or visit BlueWahoos.com.
Game times: Sunday games start at 4:05pm, all others 6:35pm
Hot tix: Every Saturday is Fireworks Saturday. August 27 is Bark in the Park (dog day).
Pensacola attractions: The National Naval Aviation Museum is a must-see in Pensacola, with hands-on displays—yes, you can enter some aircraft—a “frozen in time” look at small-town life during World War II and a children’s play area. If a beach break is what you need during baseball downtime, enjoy the white sand dunes of Perdido Key State Park. And the waterfront land the ballpark sits on is known as Community Maritime Park, with an amphitheater beyond the centerfield fence.
Famous feats: The Blue Wahoos are the former Carolina Mudcats, moving to Pensacola from Zebulon, North Carolina, in 2012. On April 5, 2012, current New York Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius singled for the first hit in Wahoos history.
Alumni: 34 former Blue Wahoos have made the major leagues, including Gregorius and Reds speedster Billy Hamilton.
2017’s player to watch:Nick Senzel was Cincinnati’s first-round pick in 2016 and top farm prospect. He should advance through the system quickly and see time in Pensacola at some point this year. The third baseman hit .329 with 15 steals and seven home runs in 58 for the Class A Dayton Dragons in 2016.
Florida Auto Exchange Stadium
373 Douglas Ave., Dunedin
Home of the Dunedin Blue Jays (Toronto Blue Jays affiliate)
Class A, Florida State League
121 miles from Ocala
While the FAE pales in comparison to newer, sexier stadiums, you have to tip your hat to the longstanding relationship between the Blue Jays and Dunedin. In a world where new stadiums or spring training complexes are abandoned at the snap of a finger, Toronto and Dunedin have been married for 40 years.
Although the park is only 27 years old, it’s definitely a throwback. Seats don’t fold upand aren’t oriented toward the pitcher’s mound. There is very little activity outside of the game—particularly challenging for children but ideal for a hardball purist.
The park is not without its charm, however. The scoreboard is as old-school as you’ll find anywhere, with no video capability. Memorabilia from the great teams of Blue Jays past is on display throughout the park. And the stadium itself is situated in the heart of Dunedin—VFW Post No. 2550 is right across the street from the park!
Tickets: $7 (all tickets are general admission). Call (727) 733-0429 or (888) 525-5297, or visit DunedinBlueJays.com.
Game times: Vary from 11am to 7pm, with most starting at 6:30pm
Hot tix: June 9 is “Beer, Bacon, and Fireworks,” and June 10 is Superhero Night. And watch your toes on July 29, because there’s a bowling tournament at the park.
Dunedin attractions: Downtown is just a 10-minute walk from the ballpark and bustles with the usual restaurant and pub fare. The stadium is also just a quarter-mile from the Gulf of Mexico and a 15-minute drive from Clearwater Beach.
Famous feats: During the baseball strike in 1995, the Blue Jays were prepared to play major league games in Dunedin due to the Canadian law forbidding the use of replacement players.
Alumni: Every great player in Toronto history who came up through the Blue Jays system played in Dunedin, including Dave Stieb, Roy Halladay, Carlos Delgado and Vernon Wells.
2017’s player to watch: Third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is expected to begin the season at low Class A Vancouver but should arrive in Dunedin by midsummer. He packs the offensive prowess of his future Hall-of-Famer father (eight homers, 42 RBI, 15 steals in 62 rookie ball games in 2016) with better plate discipline.
601 N Old Coachman Road, Clearwater
Home of the Clearwater Threshers (Philadelphia Phillies affiliate)
Class A, Florida State League
119 miles from Ocala
Where did Bright House Field go? Well, in the era of corporate naming rights, when a company morphs, so does the park. This summer marks the stadium’s 14th season, it’s the first under a new moniker (an ironic but unrelated note, the NBA’s 76ers and NHL’s Flyers played in The Spectrum in Philadelphia for four decades, beginning in the late 1960s).
Spectrum Field was built for spring training (the Phillies hold their Grapefruit League games there) and thus has a major-league feel, boasting a concourse that circles the park, unvarnished sightlines at every stop and angled seating that lends intimacy to the 8,500-seat venue.
The main entrance is on the third-base side, with Kevin Brady’s sculpture “The Ace” as a centerpiece of the entry plaza. Fans are funneled past a wishing well and dozens of tall palms when entering the park. Outside the left-field fence is the 21-and-over Tiki Pavilion, similar to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ spirited Pirate Ship at Raymond James Stadium. The park has scant foul territory, meaning fans are close to the action despite a very healthy ballpark capacity. And if the Tiki Bar isn’t your idea of a unique spot to take in a ballgame, consider the outfield’s grass berm area, which is the only place fans can catch a home-run ball—and do it while spread out on a blanket, to boot.
Tickets: $7 (outfield berm) to $10 (premium box). Call (727) 467-4457, email Tickets@ThreshersBaseball.com or visit ThreshersBaseball.com.
Game times: Vary from 10:30am to 7pm
Hot tix: Many weekend night games conclude with a fireworks show. August 12 is Superhero Night (with fireworks).
Clearwater attractions: Less than 10 miles west of the park are Clearwater’s famous beaches, two state parks and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Eastward, the park is a mile from the waters of Old Tampa Bay and Ruth Eckerd Hall, a performing arts venue.
Famous feats: Legendary Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins hit the first home run in Spectrum Field history on March 4, 2004. Threshers pitcher Julio De La Cruz hurled Spectrum Field’s first no-hitter, thwarting the Sarasota Reds 6-0 on August 18, 2006.
Alumni: The most notable former Clearwater players to make the majors are future Hall-of-Famers Chase Utley (currently playing second base for the Los Angeles Dodgers) and Cole Hamels (now pitching for the Texas Rangers).
2017’s player to watch: Pitcher Alberto Tirado is the only member of the Threshers on the Phillies 40-man roster (ensuring he is protected from other teams’ poaching). Just 22, the Dominican right-hander boasted a 6-1 record, 1.98 ERA and 80 strikeouts against 20 walks in the second half of 2016.
Bragan Field at the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville
301 A Philip Randolph Blvd., Jacksonville
Home of the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp (Miami Marlins affiliate)
Class AA, Southern League
102 miles from Ocala
Imagine the odd focus groups that led the Jacksonville Suns to decide to change their nickname to… Jumbo Shrimp. And imagine those same folks deciding to create an alternate logo featuring a jumbo shrimp hurtling out of a boiling pot of water.
The descent into nickname madness doesn’t belie how utterly spectacular Bragan Field is. The biggest park in Class AA (11,000 seats) is made improbably cozy by an intimate seating bowl and throwback façade and design. Bragan Field is what you might imagine a modern Ebbets Field or polo grounds to look like if built today; it combines old-school roots with modern flair like the video scoreboard, 12 luxury suites and four party decks.
Bragan Field’s traditionalist ways extend to how it interacts with its Jacksonville neighborhood. In a nod to Camden Yards in Baltimore and Petco Park in San Diego, Bragan melds the surrounding architecture into its design—most notably the Old St. Andrew’s Church and its stately steeple incorporated seamlessly down the left-field line.
Thus, there are no bad seats in the park. Downtown Jacksonville looms behind home plate, and most fans will have views of the Hart and Matthews Bridges over the St. John’s River. And the 360-degree concourse inside the park ensures a view of the field no matter how long it takes to gather souvenirs or concessions during the game.
In as traditionalist an endeavor as baseball, it’s hard to balance fun and respect for the game, but no park in Florida accomplishes that like Bragan Field.
Tickets: $5 (outfield general admission) to $18 (dugout box). Call (904) 358-2846 or visit JaxShrimp.com.
Game times: Vary from 12:05pm to 7:05pm, with most start times at 7:05pm
Hot tix: June 4 is Star Wars Night. June 5, July 19 and August 14 celebrate Canines & Crustaceans (dogs welcome in the park). July 9 is Christmas in July. August 8 is Silent Movie Night (no noise allowed in the park).
Jacksonville attractions: You may not need to leave the immediate area, as Jacksonville’s new basketball/hockey arena nears completion a block to the west and EverBank Field housing the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars is within walking distance, beyond the right-field fence. The less-sports addled traveler can spin less than an hour south to St. Augustine to visit the oldest city in the United States.
Famous feats: In 2005, Joel Guzman hit the longest home run in Bragan Field history, and an “X” in the playground area beyond the centerfield wall marks the spot the ball landed.
Alumni: Jacksonville’s long baseball history means multitudes of legends have passed through its uniform, most notably Hall-of-Famers Hank Aaron, Randy Johnson, Phil Niekro, Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver and Hoyt Wilhelm. In 2016, 64 ex-Jacksonvillians were active in the major leagues.
2017’s player to watch: Austin Nola is an unusual case, as a 27-year-old in Class AA. The former blue-chip middle infielder is the only Jumbo Shrimp who’s protected on the 40-man roster, and this year begins a conversion to catcher. It’s an unusual move—players often move out from behind the plate, not toward it. Nola hit .261 in 113 at Class AAA New Orleans in 2016.
Jackie Robinson Ballpark
105 E Orange Ave., Daytona Beach
Home of the Daytona Tortugas (Cincinnati Reds affiliate)
Class A, Florida State League
76 miles from Ocala
The most socially significant ballpark in Florida—perhaps in the world—also happens to be the closest minor league park to Ocala.
Jackie Robinson Ballpark was so named in 1989, acknowledging the game between Robinson’s Montreal Royals and the Brooklyn Dodgers on March 17, 1946, making Daytona the first stadium to officially host an integrated baseball game. The Jackie Robinson Museum now is housed within the complex, with fans admitted free to learn of Robinson’s accomplishments along with other pioneers like Althea Gibson, Roberto Clemente and Willie O’Ree.
The park began as the Daytona City Island Ballpark on June 4, 1914, as just a baseball diamond and a set of wooden bleachers. The park was most recently renovated in 2007, bringing the number of seats up to 4,200. The Jack sits along the Halifax River and features a quaint Riverwalk, where fans can keep up with the game via radio broadcast while buying concessions or souvenirs.
Tickets: $8 (general admission) to $12.50 (VIP). Call (386) 257-3172 or visit DaytonaTortugas.com.
Game times: Vary from 1:05pm to 7:05pm, with most start times at 7:05pm
Hot tix: June 9 and August 13 are Bark in the Park (dogs welcome). August 9 is Wine & Design at the Park (wine tasting and a painting class).
Daytona Beach attractions: Aside from, well, Daytona Beach, consider the Museum of Arts and Sciences, which boasts an IMAX theater and planetarium. For shopping and strolling, be sure to walk down Beach Street.
Famous feats: All-time hitting great Stan Musial played for the then-Daytona Beach Islanders in 1940, as a pitcher (his original position) batting .311. In fact, it was in the sandy outfield of Daytona Beach where Musial fell and injured his pitching shoulder, re-setting his course for the Hall of Fame as an outfielder. Incredibly, minor league baseball in Daytona Beach has been affiliated with 12 different major league clubs: the Dodgers, Reds, St. Louis Cardinals, Cleveland Indians, Chicago White Sox, Kansas City and Oakland A’s, Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals, Houston Astros, Baltimore Orioles, Texas Rangers and Chicago Cubs.
Alumni: In addition to Robinson and Musial, current Cubs infielder Javier Baez became only the second player in Florida State League history to hit four homers in one game while playing for Daytona Beach. There are dozens of other Daytona Beach alumni in the majors, most prominently the reigning NL MVP, Kris Bryant.
2017’s player to watch: Last fall, the Reds signed prime pitching prospect Vladimir Gutierrez out of Cuba. Just 21, the right-hander was Cuba’s Serie Nacional Rookie of the Year. As Cincinnati’s No. 5 farm prospect, the reliever will be converted to a starting pitcher this season with the Tortugas.
Ocala On The Professional Diamond
Contained within the Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Complex off of Route 40 in Ocala are the remnants of Ocala’s professional past.
Gerig Field was once part of the complex, and it was there that the Class D Florida State League Ocala Yearlings played the only two minor-league seasons in the city’s professional baseball history.
Ocala’s baseball roots run deep, as one of four cities participating in the inaugural Florida State League in 1892. The city drew enough local interest to host two National League stalwarts, the Philadelphia Phillies and Brooklyn Grooms, for an exhibition game in town. But the fledgling FSL folded after just one year, and it would be more than four decades before professional baseball would return.
Gerig Field was built using Works Progress Administration funds in 1936 and just four years later was hosting professional baseball. The Yearlings debuted in the now-thriving, eight-team Florida State League, competing against the likes of the Daytona Beach Islanders, Deland Red Hats, Gainesville G-Men, Leesburg Anglers, Orlando Senators, Sanford Seminoles and St. Augustine Saints.
Former major league outfielder Wilbur “Lefty” Good was the Yearlings’ first manager but was fired during his debut season in 1940, when Ocala finished in seventh place with a 57-82 record. The team managed an even worse record in 1941, finishing in seventh at 49-78. The FSL suspended operations during World War II (1942-45), and when play resumed in 1946, the Palatka Azaleas had taken the Yearlings’ spot in the league.
Before the Yearlings made their debut, the Milwaukee Brewers (then a minor league team) held spring training at Gerig Field, from 1939 to 1941. Joining them in 1940-41 was a Texas League club, the Tulsa Oilers. Like the Yearlings, the Brewers and Oilers ceased operations during World War II.
After the war, Gerig Field became a minor league spring training site for the numerous farm affiliates of the Boston Red Sox, including the Birmingham Barons and Memphis Chickasaws, from 1948 to 1971. That means any number of future major leaguers made Ocala their spring home before the regular season: future Hall-of-Famer Carl Yastrzemski, Jimmy Piersall, Wilbur Wood, Walt Dropo, Bill Virdon, Phil Regan, Bobo Newsom, Hal Trosky, Galen Cisco, Dick Radatz and Glenn Beckert. And although Red Sox legend Ted Williams never played in a game at Gerig Field, in the 1960s he almost certainly spent some time in Ocala as an unofficial coach, watching Red Sox prospects and offering them hitting tips.