By Doc Lawrence –
Bart Giamatti, a popular commissioner of major league baseball famously observed that life for kids of all ages begins again each spring with the first crack of a bat meeting a baseball. You get a head start on the annual rebirth in Florida where a select number of baseball teams come to the Sunshine State for what is historically called the Grapefruit League.
The games don’t count in standings, but who cares? This is much more than a Florida vacation delight, it’s an American ritual, not just for pricey athletes but fans and ordinary visitors who enjoy the phenomenon of continuity. Spring baseball can make a claim as part of our cultural core.
In Florida this time of the year baseball offers more than games. Not to minimize the thrill of watching a game particularly for those who have survived almost unthinkable weather up north, but there’s the water, walking trails, shopping, museums and restaurants.
My memories of the spring baseball season go back decades. I saw the greats without having to traverse the continent. Ted Williams with the Red Sox, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford in Yankee pinstripes, Stan Musial and Bob Gibson as St. Louis Cardinals, Dodger legends like Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Don Sutton along with countless others including the Met’s Tom Seaver, the Cincinnati’s Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench and Pete Rose.
There are weekends where, with just a little planning, a fan can see six different major league teams play. And between the excitement of games, there are so many places to visit, drink and dine.
Many baseball greats are men you’d really love to have as a guest for dinner at a fine place like Bern’s Steak House in Tampa. Dodger Hall of Famer Tommy Lasorda is polished, polite, charming and a bona fide gourmand. Only a select few would have Lasorda’s elegant style, but many can still endear themselves.
I cannot think about baseball players as businessmen without Mickey Mantle’s Family Restaurants coming to mind. The Yankee centerfielder, an Oklahoma native, ran like a gazelle, and could do almost everything on the field. After retiring, “the Mick” as he was often called, bought into this franchise business branded with his famous name and devised the company slogan: “To get a better piece of chicken, you’d have to be a rooster.”
Places where diners often spot a familiar baseball face dot the Florida landscape this time of year, but if celebrity sighting isn’t a priority, there’s a trove of memorable restaurants waiting on you to book a reservation.
Opened in the early 1930’s, Lakeland’s ballpark is near Florida Southern College, one of the most interesting campuses in North America. The stunning design of architect Frank Lloyd Wright is represented in the library, chapel, walkways and administration buildings that glow like the Pyramids in the Florida sunshine. During construction, students who actually built almost everything during the Depression effort, often worked under Wright’s supervision, attended classes and during March, watched baseball greats like Babe Ruth and Lou Geherig play the Tigers when the Yankees came to town. Today, instead of beer and hot dogs, there is beef tenderloin with Cabernet Sauvignon at the elegantly casual Terrace Grille in downtown Lakeland.
Tampa’s Ybor City is home to the iconic Columbia, an epicurean shrine that has won prestigious awards from time immemorial. Flamenco music and dancers accentuate the elegant dining room and spectacular menu. The aforementioned Bern’s, arguably at the top of the best steak houses in the country, has the world’s largest wine list and the world’s largest privately owned wine collection.
Why not watch the Yankees play the Red Sox in Tampa, dine afterward at Bern’s and top off everything with the experience of a guided tour through Bern’s wine cellar?
Days spent enjoying the games during the Florida Grapefruit League season produced many memories. One day after an Atlanta Braves match with the Phillies in West Palm Beach, all-star pitcher Phil Neikro invited my 12-year-old son to an early dinner. They hopped in Neikro’s sports convertible, ate at a Palm Beach restaurant (Tabu as I recall) and my starry-eyed son was dropped off at his grandfather’s house at a reasonable hour. Neikro had a stellar career as a knuckleball-throwing right-handed pitcher with the Braves and the Yankees and was elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
Walk into any Grapefruit League park this spring and feel the magic: fresh cut grass, children laughing, an old man in a wheelchair sporting a weathered Red Sox cap, giggling girls near a dugout vying for autographs while you ponder everything with a sip of cold beer.
All across Florida every March, when games pause for the seventh inning stretch, fans join in singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” that deeply ingrained affirmation of the importance of tradition. For almost three peaceful hours, children of all ages are having fun under Florida’s warm sunshine.