Right now is the best time of year for travelers and sports fans: Ice Hockey is heating up, football hangovers are mostly gone and its more than cold enough in the Northern states to justify a trip to someplace warm.
That someplace you seek, is MLB Spring Training. If you've never been, or need some help in planning and getting the most out of your trip, here's my:
5) FIND OUT WHERE YOU'RE GOING. 15 teams play in Florida's Grapefruit League and the other 15 play in Arizona's Cactus League. Search complete schedules and details for all teams at MLB.com. Games begin the first week in March and conclude the final weekend in March. Save money, on hotel, air and game tickets, by flying on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Check your team site for package deals at the official team hotel. BUY YOUR TICKETS IN ADVANCE from your team's website. If your team is highly touted, like the Cubs, Mets, Cleveland or Toronto is this year and they're home games are sold out, buy tickets to their 'road games' on other team's websites.
Kids love sitting in the cheaper outfield grass, and it gives them a chance to play during the game. Get SIRIUS/XM. If you have it already, lock your radio on the MLB channel to soak up all the insight and insanity broadcast 24/7. If not, you can get a FREE trail subscription for your smartphone that will get you through the month, with channels dedicated to each team, and the flagship channel that features interviews, games and great stories.
4) TAILOR TRIP TO YOUR TRAVELERS. If it's a family trip, book a resort with a kickass pool and amenities. In Florida, teams are scattered all over the state, but in Arizona most of the teams cluster in the Phoenix area. Tessa Bajema from the Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort is an expert on spring Training, watch my interview with her at their amazing pool:
3) THE OTHER 21 HOURS. Luckily, there's plenty of non-baseball activities in both leagues to entertain, exhaust and enlighte. Golf is a big draw, as well as regional food: Gulf Coast seafood in Florida and Steaks and South Western fare in AZ. Spring Training Connection is a good source to book tee times and find restaurants and activities like alligator tours, NASA tours & casino junkets. Or you can just relax and hit the water slide.
Each team has its own underground social network of hard cores who know where the players eat, where they hang out at night and which bars "belong" to your team. Go to your team's website and poke around in the COMMENTS sections under the NEWS. It will quickly become apparent who the chosen few are by virtue of the intensity of their posts. Reach out to them on Social media with your questions, and they will be happily spill their secrets. Tessa and Spring Training Tips say to stick around after the day games to get autographs, selfies and maybe a batting practice ball or three. Ask the players where they hang out, if they're cool like the Cubs' Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant just might tell you.
2) BRING PLENTY OF $1 BILLS. Speaking as a life-long Cubs fan, I'm an expert at creating distractions during hopeless seasons. Though on paper, this season seems our most hopeful of the last 100 years - 108 years actually - there's always room for friendly wagering. After years of field testing, here are the TWO BEST BASEBALL PARK GAMBLING GAMES:
MOUNDBALL. Get an empty beer cup - should be simple. Define the group of players, 6 is best. At the top of every half inning, every player puts $1 in the cup. Player #1 holds the cup. At the END of the inning after the final out is made, you're betting on where the ball used in the play, ends up. If its tossed by the ump or the player and it lands TOUCHING the dirt of the pitcher's mound, the person holding the cup wins all the money in the cup. If the ball ends up anywhere else, that person loses, every player puts another buck in the cup, and the cup moves to the next player. If there's money left in the cup at the end of the game, its split evenly.
OUTFIELDER GAME. Six players. Each player selects an outfield position and a team, ex. Cubs Center Fielder. Every time that player does something good, the player who 'has' him, wins $1 each from the other 5 players. Every time your player does something bad, you PAY $1 to EACH other player. GOOD THINGS: Walk, Stolen Base, RBI, Run Scored, Hit, Double ($2), Triple ($3) Home run ($6, $4 for the dinger and $1 for the RB, $1 Run scoredI) therefore a Grand Slam pays $10 (4 RBI, 4 bases, $1 clutch bonus) BAD THINGS: Strike out, caught stealing, error. But here's the best part, to win your money you have to ASK FOR IT BEFORE THE NEXT PITCH, which forces people to pay attention. I don't know what's better winning a few buck on a triple, or having some OTHER guy not collect his money because they forgot to ask for it. Ahh, the delights of the game.
And the #1 Spring Training Tip: TALK TO STRANGERS. One of the best things about Baseball is the down time between pitches and innings and cold beer... the perfect recipe for idle chatter with seatmates. Everyone has an opinion on EVERYONE, and you don't have to be an expert... to be entertaining. Commit to talking to a new person each inning, trust me, it will be at least as entertaining as the game itself.
HILARIOUS BOOING. If you've seen Bleacher Bums, the comedic play about the hapless 1970's Cubs created by Joe Mantegna, Dennis Franz and George Wendt among others, you know the value of the clever grandstand outburst. There's nothing better than a well-timed, playfully demeaning shout out directed towards an opposing player. HOWEVER, remember that there are kids all over the place, and profanity and truly aggressive outbursts aren't funny. Pick an opposing player who's playing exceptionally well against your boys and pile on. Google his high school coach's name and scream out how the player drove him to drink. Get your new friends to join in, see who can come up with the funniest comment and turn it into a chant. Making fun of Hunter Pence's pants is always fun, he gets into it. You know you're the 10th man when the player looks over at you and acknowledges your mastery with a smile or tip of the cap. At that point, he is now your best friend... and you enlist him to benignly harass a new player.
Follow these tips and I guarantee you'll have the time of your life, and want to do it again every spring. PLAY BALL!