As Toronto Blue Jays players being filing into Dunedin, Fla this week, an unusually large contingent of Canadian baseball fans plan on following them down over the next several weeks to get an early look at their revamped club.
And with so many Grapefruit League rookies preparing for their maiden pilgrimage to Dunedin/Clearwater we asked some of Sportsnet’s spring training veterans for some tips on how to get the most out of your time in central Florida.
But whether you’re heading down for the first or 10th time — or even debating a trip next year — we’re confident our panel has offered something for everyone.
The result: Sportsnet’s Fan Guide to Spring Training.
Part I is below. You can read Part II here.
Shi Davidi (@shidavidi)
Mike Wilner (@wilnerness590)
Jamie Campbell (@sportsnetjamie)
Barry Davis (@SNbarrydavis)
Arden Zwelling (@ardenzwelling)
Tao of Stieb (@taoofstieb)
Dirk Hayhurst (@thegarfoose)
WHERE TO EAT:
Shi Davidi: My favourite spot for dinner is actually in nearby Largo, an Italian place called Amici. It can be hard to find an authentic, family-run restaurant in the area -- the big chains dominate, sadly -- and this place would thrive on the streets of Rome. Since I usually grab breakfast at the hotel on the way to the ballpark, I don't have much on that front, but a great sports bar where you might find a Toronto scribe or two at night is the Varsity Club.
Friendly place, decent menu, good prices and it's one of the few places willing to show hockey (including the Maple Leafs) for the puck heads among you.
Mike Wilner: The best breakfast spot there is Lenny's. It may even be the best breakfast spot in the entirety of the continental United States.
There's a definite Phillies vibe to the place, because it's only a couple of blocks south of Bright House Networks Field in Clearwater, but you'll often find a Blue Jay or two there on an off-day.
The menu is massive, the Jewish-deli-style food is outstanding and the portions are huge -- and you get a complimentary Danish basket when you walk in. If you're a seafood lover, hit Shephard's buffet on Clearwater Beach for dinner.
Jamie Campbell: Breakfast at Lenny's in Clearwater on US 19. You'll probably see Zaun's jersey hanging on the wall. For dinner, head for La Trattoria Da Gaetano. It was a favourite haunt of the Jays during the World Series years.
Arden Zwelling: If you're into craft beer then Dunedin Brewery is a must. Their menu is solid as well, but I will warn you that once you have tried fried jalapeno cheese curds nothing else in life will really matter.
Casa Tina on Main Street is a great place for Mexican; Dunedin Smokehouse is the spot if you like a good meat sweat; Sea Sea Riders has the best seafood in town; Cristino's in Clearwater does pizza right-thin-crust, fresh toppings, coal-fired in a brick oven.
And before you leave you have to hit up Lenny's for a hung-over breakfast. You could spend 30 minutes just staring at all the memorabilia on the walls and they give you a free basket of Danishes just for showing up.
Tao of Stieb: The Dunedin Smokehouse was by far my favourite place to hit after the games. A five minute walk from the ballpark, it has a great patio, some nice beers on tap and brilliant barbecue on the menu. I was skeptical about trying a Montreal Beef Sandwich that far south of the Mason-Dixon Line, but it was delicious.
I also recommend the Big John Combo (quarter chicken, ribs, pulled pork, and brisket), but bring your appetite. It's a lot of protein to ingest in one sitting, but the barbecue sauces are so nice it's hard to stop eating.
As the name suggests, the Big John Combo at the Dunedin Smokehouse is um, big.
WHAT TO DO BESIDES BASEBALL:
Shi Davidi: Depends how far you're willing to venture, but there's plenty to do in the area. Clearwater Beach is beautiful and water sports are easy to find, including a personal favourite, jet-skiing. There are plenty of outlet malls so there's ample opportunity to stock up at pretty good prices. Disney World is 90 minutes away if you're bringing young kids, and nearby Tampa has plenty to offer, with Lightning games a worthwhile experience.
Historic Ybor City in Tampa is a pretty good place to have a night out. And golf is everywhere.
Mike Wilner: If you get homesick, you can go skating - indoors - at the Countryside Mall in Dunedin. Sunset at Clearwater Beach is a thing of beauty. Busch Gardens in Tampa isn't far, nor are the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks. The Clearwater Aquarium is a lovely stop too.
Barry Davis: If you have a free day, a great experience is "Swimming with Manatees." It's about 90 minutes from Clearwater, straight up US 19 in Crystal River, a place called "River Adventures."
Arden Zwelling: First thing's first; if you can spring for a rental car or cabs to Dunedin, stay in Clearwater. Nothing against Dunedin, but the town pretty much shuts down around 7:00 pm. Clearwater is a bit livelier and closer to the beaches in St. Petersburg and Tampa where there are actual young people doing young people things. There is also plenty of golfing if you want to feel better about your health by doing something while drinking that requires you to stand up; Dunedin Golf Club is a beautiful course and you can play a round for less than $50. You can go on a fishing trip in the Gulf of Mexico, catching grouper and snapper -- you might even spot a shark or two.
WHERE TO SIT AT FLORIDA AUTO EXCHANGE STADIUM:
Shi Davidi: There are no bad seats in the facility, but if you're going to sit in the sections closest to the field, you better pay attention because you're right atop the action. Daydreaming can be dangerous. Worth keeping in mind is the sun can be very strong, so if you burn easily get something in the shade.
Mike Wilner: In the shade. The stadium isn't that big, so there's really not a bad seat in the place, but the sun can get awfully hot. When I started coming down to Dunedin, there would be games where I'd look out at the stands and think "where did everybody go?" They had all migrated up to the top few rows to get out of the sun.
So up top is best, and if you sit on the first-base side, you're above the Blue Jays' dugout. Of course, if you sit on the third-base side you can look into the Blue Jays' dugout.
Take the advice of Mike Wilner's -- and these fine folks -- and grab a seat in the shade if you can.
Arden Zwelling: There really isn't a bad seat because the park is so small, but if I weren't in the sweaty confines of the press box I would probably opt for somewhere behind the Blue Jays dugout down the first base line. The typical instinct is to sit directly behind home plate; but those seats aren't particularly appealing at Florida Auto Exchange because of the thicker-than-usual protective netting along the backstop which will save you from catastrophic facial injuries while annoying you throughout the game.
Also, while you may have forgotten about its existence over the last two miserable sub-Siberian months, there is the sun. It is very harmful. If you'd rather not grease yourself inches thick with two-million SPF sunscreen, then opt for seats higher up where you will enjoy shade and look down upon the foolish rubes below you, slowly roasting crisp like a supermarket chicken.
Tao of Stieb: Even in March, the midday sun gets very hot and will roast you if you're not careful. Your temptation might be to look for seats towards the front so that you can get a close look at the Jays, but I'd recommend looking for something towards the back of the 200 level seats so that you can stay in the shade. In a small ballpark like this one, even the back rows will give you a great view of the game.
Sections 203 and 204 will give you the first base line, where the top rows remain in the shade all game. The sun shines in towards the third base line, so it tends to get less shade save for the very back row or two.
During a recent chat surrounding the launch of his new ebook, Wild Pitches, Dirk Hayhurst shared with us some of his own personal spring training tips. It's good stuff. Have a listen...