"(Charlotte) is a great place to locate Spring Training. (It’s) a dynamic community between Sarasota and Fort Myers." - Matt Silverman, 2006.
(Note: I'm here to interrupt the thrilling debate on international politics, and its intersection with baseball to bring you the third of a multi-part series on Spring Training sites. If I missed anything, or you have any insider tips that I may have missed I’d love to hear about it in the comments below)
This past Saturday I got the opportunity to return to Charlotte County Sports Park to catch a spring training game between the Rays and the Yankees. As it is roughly an hour and a half from St. Petersburg, it’s a trip I only get to take once or twice any given spring. Nonetheless, it’s a trip worth taking for any Rays fans, despite the numerous other opportunities to watch them play closer to home every spring.
Of all the parks I’ve been to, this one is about as close to the middle of nowhere as any. In the days before Mapquest/Google Maps, I can only imagine how many Texas Ranger fans wound up lost in a swamp somewhere. When you feel like you’re completely lost, chances are it will be about a quarter mile on your left. Don’t expect to hit up a nearby bar before or after the game.
The above map shows the entire facility. The yellow star is by the main parking lot ($10). If you fail to show up by around 11:30, chances are you will not get in this lot, and will be completely across the street (not pictured) for the same price. I’ve previously shown up near first pitch and faced a 20+ minute walk/wait to get in the stadium.
This time, I arrived around 10:30 am for a 1pm start. At that time many of the Rays higher-profile minor leaguers such as Blake Snell, Jacob Faria, and Jake Bauers were taking batting practice on the field closest to the yellow star. A security guard informed me that the practice fields are open every day of spring training, but that you "have to walk all the way around." What this means is that if you show up on a non-game day, you may enter the practice facility at the light blue star. However, on a game day you’d need to go all the way around the the dark blue star. So if you’re up for it, and want to arrive as early as 9am (which the security guard reported is when some arrive, and the morning action begins) you might have the place all to yourself.
However, since it was already 10:45 when I acquired this info, it was a moot point.
There are 2 levels of seating, both very close to the field. Like Mckechnie, Charlotte County Sports Park is a closed concourse. Both levels of seating are very close to the action. On a hot day, you may want to opt for second level seating, as shade is more scarce than at either of the two parks I’ve already reviewed.
There is also a large berm seating area in each of the outfield corners, with the left field berm extending into the outfield. There are various tables, and picnic chairs, but it has been my experience that most of these areas wind up being reserved for private parties. So if you have only an SRO seat, you should definitely bring a towel/blanket to sit on.
No outside food is allowed at Charlotte County Sports Park, and security is uncharacteristically thorough with their bag searches as compared with other spring training sites. You are allowed to bring in one liter of water (sealed) per person.
As usual I’ve included a few pics of the menus to be found around the park. As you can see, they offer Chik-Fil-A at nearly all of their main concession stands, and have a sandwich station (which is quickly becoming the norm)..
It’s important to note at this point that Charlotte County Sports Park is located directly across the street from the County fairgrounds, and it shows in their non-traditional food options. If you wanted something out of the ordinary, you could choose from any of the following:
Fish and Chips
The variety of food doesn’t stop there. Say you wanted a sweet treat beyond the standard Ice Cream, Dippin Dots, or Cracker Jacks. At Charlotte Sports park you can also choose from Root Beer Floats, Italian Ice, Kettle Korn, Oreo Churros, Sundaes, and Frozen Bananas. There is a food option for any appetite.
Of the parks that I’ve reviewed thus far, Port Charlotte has the best food options by a long mile.
I’ve included a few images of beer menus, including the center field tiki bar menu and beer list. As you can see, the beer is competitively priced (for an MLB event). As standing room space outside of the berm is somewhat limited, and shade is scarce, the tiki bar (which provides both) tends to get very crowded.
Foul Balls, Autographs, Etc.
As I mentioned above, if you arrive before the stadium opens you’ve got a good chance at getting a batting practice home run from one of the practice fields. Once you get in the stadium, your chances aren’t as good as you’d initially assume, as the boardwalk is somewhat narrow. On the day I was there, about half of the decently struck home runs left the stadium altogether.
Autograph hunters should line up down the first base line around 30-45 minutes before game time. At this time the Rays leave the clubhouse, and walk down the right field line. Security did not appear overzealous about removing fans who lacked seats for the seated sections down the line (with the fair and obvious exception of people standing in front of someone else’s seat that’d already arrived). The Rays signed up to about 5-10 minutes before first pitch.
- As someone who regularly brings young children to the games, I greatly appreciated not only the fact that they have a playground, but that Mr. Longoria was recently kind enough to shell for a shaded cover for the area. It’s a great go-to area when your kid needs to burn off those Oreo churro jitters without getting a sunburn or dehydration. There isn’t anything else like it in the Grapefruit league, and I can’t overstate how important it is to those of us with little ones.
- While I was there I ran into an issue with my kid where we needed to go out to the car. Guest services was very understanding, and made an exception to the standard re-entry policy. Much appreciated.
- The park really evokes the Florida feel, and I respect that they elected to not make the 5000th different iteration of Arlington/Camden/etc.
- Though I went on one of the most crowded games of the year (Yankees/Weekend), the place did a fine job of managing the crowd (at least for the main seating area).
- The seats in the main seating bowl are dark blue plastic, not slatted, and shaded areas are minimal. This combined to make seats so hot to the touch that we needed to use a bottle of cold water to make our 2 seats bearable.
- Too much of the boardwalk area is sold to groups, significantly narrowing the options for the SRO crowd. This combined with the fact that the main bowl is smaller than in most places means all of the decent options to sit without a seat get snatched up fairly quickly. I’d advise people going there to buy a seat if they can.
Port Charlotte is a gorgeous facility, and it still shows its newness. It offers decent access to the players, a nice family atmosphere, and a really good choice of foods. Though I don’t make it down there as much as I’d like, I’ve always left every game feeling that the trip was worth it. For those with small kids, it should be at the very top of the Grapefruit League list.