American philosopher Donald Davidson made the claim that all similes are trivially true because everything is like everything else in some way. In this broad sense, it is certainly true that Spring Training is like regular season baseball in many ways, most obvious among which is that they are playing the same sport in both contexts.
However, there are also many ways in which Spring Training is unlike the regular season. The games move at a quicker pace; the rosters are huge; after the 6th inning, you get excited if you've heard of a single player on the field. But perhaps the most notable difference is the stadia in which Spring Training games are played. Most of these parks have only a single level of seating that provide an intimate experience for every fan.
Partially because fans have easier access to players due to their proximity and also because players recognize the meaninglessness of the games being played, there is more interaction between players and fans during the game. I've never understood the pursuit of autographs, but if you do, players are willing to sign any time. Players will joke along with heckling fans. I've even seen people straight up have conversations with pitchers kicking it in the bullpen.
While Spring Training would certainly be relaxed if played in major league stadia, that the games are mostly played in minor league or college parks adds to the non-competitive and relaxing environment one experiences. Many parks have large stretches of berm seating where adults can recline with their beverage of choice and kids can frolic and knock over said beverages. Those beverages are also cheaper than they would be at a major league park, with beers ranging from $6.50 to $9 depending on the park.
The telos of a Spring Training stadium is to create a relaxing environment in which fans can absorb the simple joy of meaningless games of baseball. So impressed was I with the experience I had at the stadia near which I was staying, that I chose to employ much of my unanticipated 2 weeks of free time traveling the state to see other parks. I was unable to visit all of the parks of the Grapefruit League, but what follows is a definitive ranking of those I did visit.
In the spirit of spring relaxation, these rankings are neither the product of a mathematical formula nor a rigorous underlying methodology. Rather, they are based on soft, mushy standards like atmosphere and feel.
#9. Joker Marchant Stadium, Tigers, Lakeland
The Good: There is a large grassy area that occupies all of left field that can be pretty self-contained as a Corona stand and a generic stadium concession place are located on the premises. It's a small stadium compared to a lot of other parks, so it definitely exudes that "not-a-big-deal" vibe that makes Spring Training so great.
The Bad: This stadium is just hideous. If you've ever been to Florida, though, you would know that most buildings there follow the same blueprint: an off-white or yellow concrete exterior that makes every structure look like a child's sand creation on the beach, albeit that of an architectural wunderkind. I don't know why they all look the same. Maybe the light color is to save on air-conditioning and the general ugliness is just a shortcut developers take because old people can't see well enough to tell the difference anyway. Whatever the reason, Joker Marchant occupies the aesthetic extreme of the style. In addition to its aesthetic deficiencies, it was also impossible to circumnavigate the stadium as the concourse did not continue behind center and right field. This makes it more annoying and inefficient than it needs to be to check out the entire stadium.
#8. Champion Stadium, Braves, Lake Buena Vista
The Good: This is the only stadium that offers free parking. The grass seating in left field had the steepest slope of any park I attended which made considerations of who would sit in front of you less important. They also had a pretty cool beer special. Like most concession vendors, they divided their beer into two types: Domestic and Craft. For the first beer you ordered, Domestics were $9 and Crafts were $11, but with that beer, you got a cup that was to be your beer cup for the rest of the evening. Refills of that cup were $5 and $6 respectively for Domestic and Craft. If you're committed to drinking a lot of Bud Light, this could potentially be a good deal.
The Bad: Champion Stadium is part of Disney's Wide World of Sports, so the atmosphere feels very corporate. Sitting out on the lawn, the usher issued a very scripted and laying-down-the-law style pre-game speech about proper lawn conduct. Additionally, not all lawn was created equal. The lawn behind the outfield fence was the cheap section, but the lawn in left field foul territory required a higher-priced ticket. These lawns were separated by a fence and a well-trained Disney employee was checking tickets for most of the game. The feel was much more like that of a regular season game than I wanted. The stadium has a second level and an enclosed concourse, which both act to distance the fans from the action on the field. The parking was not entirely free as the tickets were $5-10 more expensive than other parks. I have a rant about externalities, incentives, and free parking, but I'll hold off because this is already getting sort of long.
The Good: In most parks, standing room ‘seating' is restricted to the outfield or sections of the main concourse with views onto the field. At Roger Dean, the standing room is basically anywhere that isn't chairs or stairs. I managed to stand about 10 rows up, directly behind home plate for the first couple innings of the game before I upgraded to the unoccupied seats in front of me. For a person committed to only buying standing room access to Spring Training games, the ability to get something like the best view in the stadium out of that purchase is a huge plus.
The Bad: Roger Dean Stadium comes from the same architectural parentage as Joker Marchant and, really, the entire state of Florida. Unlike Joker Marchant, though, Roger Dean only has a small section of berm seating nestled in the bosom of the right field foul pole. Grass seating is close to an essential piece of the Spring Training experience and to disrespect it like Roger Dean has does not do Mr. Dean any favors in these rankings.
#6. Bright House Field, Phillies, Clearwater
The Good: The first circumnavigable stadium to make an appearance on this list and that is a huge boost to its rankings. Circumnavigability is huge for me as it allows one to experience the whole stadium without having to needlessly retrace one's steps. Add to that the open concourse that allows the fan to keep tabs on the game even when walking around and Bright House provides a pretty great fan experience. I was shocked that many stadium concessions didn't pay homage to the cuisine of the team's home city, but Bright House did with at least two Delco Cheesesteak stands and and Victory beer being poured throughout the park. Also, the grass seating is ample with vast expanses in left center and right field for fans to recline, enjoy a beer, and get sunburnt. Now that I'm writing this, I want to move Bright House up in these rankings, but my gut tells me no. Without gut, these rankings are nothing, so I am forced to obey it.
The Bad: Really, the only bad here is the architecture. Bright House comes from the same family as other stadiums ranked behind it, but is maybe a little less garish in its application of those principles.
#5. George Steinbrenner Field, Yankees, Tampa
The Good: I ranked this one right in the middle because I really had no idea what to do with it. It ended up this high though because there are two things I really like about it. First, it is a fittingly showy and physically imposing expression of The Yankees Way and its namesake. It definitely does not have the small, intimate spring training feel of the other stadia I visited, but for the Yankees, somehow that seems fine. Second, the dimensions of the park are exactly those of Yankee Stadium, which seems like a smart thing every team, especially those with funky outfield corners and angles, should do with their Spring Training homes.
The Bad: Because it was big and not Spring Training-y, Steinbrenner Field did not have any lawn seating, which was unfortunate because there was no other standing room seating that was particularly close to the field. That it had no Spring Training feel to it limits its ceiling to here.
#4. Ed Smith Stadium, Orioles, Sarasota
The Good: This is the first stadium on this list without a fatal flaw. At the same time, though, it doesn't do anything particularly well. It's small and every seat feels really close to the field, but that's simply the expectation for a Spring Training stadium. The outfield and the pavilion seating in left field are lined with palm trees, which, although a normal feature of Spring Training parks, seems more naturally incorporated into the space at Ed Smith. I wasn't there for a day game, but the stadium has cloth sun shades that look like they would keep more seats in the shade than most parks.
The Bad: It misses out on the three things I profess to care about: open concourse, circumnavigability, and lawn seating. Despite having none of those things, Ed Smith Stadium somehow feels like the quintessential Spring Training stadium in that it is small, has palm trees, and puts every fan close to the action.
#3. McKechnie Field, Pirates, Bradenton
The Good: McKechnie field offers standing room along the railing all around the outfield, except for in front of the batter's eye in center field. You can circumnavigate the stadium and have a decent view of the action on the field for a little more than half your travels. Their concessions also pay a small homage to Pittsburgh by offering Iron City beer, which is the classic cheap option out that way.
The Bad: It doesn't have lawn seating. All the standing room is actually standing room. Unless you get to the park over an hour before the start of the game, which, why would you do that for Spring Training?, you won't get a seat along the rail and will have to stand behind people sitting on bar stools. That's my only complaint though, and it's but a minor quibble since one can usually slide into a standing position along the rail.
#2. JetBlue Stadium, Red Sox, Fort Myers
The Good: This is a weird park. The exterior is super modern with a white, wavy roof covering the seating along the first and third base lines. Clashing with that is a playing field designed to perfectly mimic Fenway park from the dugout design to the outfield. It has the Green Monster (with manual scoreboard), the Triangle, and Pesky's Pole. It's a weird generational clash, but I love the boldness of it. It also has lawn seating in right field for those fans, not unlike the present author, who are cheap bastards.
The Bad: The path between Green Monster South and the lawn seating is closed to the public. That's really all I have here. I can see people hating on the fake Fenway thing and/or the excessively modern exterior, but I don't.
# 1. Hammond Stadium, Twins, Fort Myers
The Good: From the outside, Hammond Stadium looks something like an assisted living facility with the new, off-white plastic siding and non-functional plastic shutters. Once inside, though, Hammond is everything you could ask for in a Spring Training park. It offers a solid section of lawn seating in left field and the stadium is circumnavigable. The concessions were the best. Many stadia offer frozen drinks and margaritas, but only Hammond had beer shakes. I'm not entirely sure what exactly they are and how much beer goes into them, but for $7 I received a Blue Moon Creamsicle Beer Shake and, I must tell you, it was the best thing I had in my life.
Hammond Field was getting the #1 Ranking here before I tried that shake in the 6th inning, but now it's a goddamn rout.
The Bad: The assisted living facility exterior was sort of off putting at first and some of the concession staff weren't exactly equipped to psychologically handle lines that ran more than one deep, but those were minor subtractions from an otherwise excellent stadium.
The following stadiums were not reviewed, but, based on Wikipedia entries, I have classified them as follows: