By Doc Lawrence –
LAKELAND, Florida. Time hasn’t changed baseball all that much. In this beautifully preserved city that looks like photos of Florida during FDR’s first term, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s brass section led by Maestro Leonard Slatkin, performed the National Anthem just before the pre-season game between the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals.
With the orchestra’s eight-day barnstorming tour of Florida, Slatkin, a baseball-mad music director, didn’t miss the opportunity to promote his orchestra. For a few minutes Baseball blended with Beethoven. Afterward, instead of beer and hot dogs, there was beef tenderloin with Cabernet Sauvignon at the Terrace Grille in downtown Lakeland.
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 in the Florida sunshine like the Pyramids. 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.
This is the magic of the Grapefruit League, a prime opportunity each March for the Sunshine State to strut its stuff.
The Atlanta Braves Grapefruit League facility is part of Disney World and ESPN’s entertainment complex near Orlando. This is still baseball, albeit in a luxury setting that can be pricey. Fans are undeterred: every game is a sell out. When the umpire calls the final out, great dining is moments away from very casual to high-end gourmet. Orlando has many fine dining choices like Todd English’s BlueZoo. Dining in nearby Winter Haven, a place with the charm and “Old Florida” feel much like Lakeland is the home of the Morse Museum and highly respected Rollins College. Dinner at Luma on Park is obligatory.
Luma faces the city’s beautiful Central Park and few dishes equal Chef Brandon McGlamery’s signature dish, Wagyu Beef Tartre, especially when buoyed by a balanced Malbec from Argentina. The restaurant ‘s menu and wine list are reminders that once upon a time Joe DiMaggio, another baseball great and successful restaurateur, did wonders for Florida’s burgeoning restaurant industry by dining out with wife Marilyn Monroe when the Yankees played in the Grapefruit League.
Not even sports writers can do a full Grapefruit League schedule. A downsized plan avoids criss-crossing the state. Over the years, I found that choosing just a few cities each March is more realistic. It does, after all, take more than a single day in Lakeland to enjoy a baseball game, tour the Frank Lloyd Wright buildings (all fully functioning), change clothes and have cocktails, dinner and conversation at the Terrace Grille. And Orlando/Winter Park is equally deserving of two days. The Tiffany collection at the Morse Museum stands alone in elegance and history. Winter Park, like Lakeland, is a pedestrian’s paradise.
Toss in spring baseball flings to other Major League venues like Jupiter (St. Louis Cardinals), Sarasota (Baltimore Orioles), Clearwater (Philadelphia Phillies), Tampa (Yankees). Dunedin (Tampa Bay Rays), Viera (Washington Nationals), Jupiter (Miami Marlins) and other locations and a spring break for adults or kids combines sports with culinary adventure and cultural enrichment.
Each March beginning in the early in the 20th century, Florida has been baseball’s stage, showcasing superstars along with unknowns who dream of fame and fortune. Still America’s pastime, baseball is a gentle game that pays homage to its beginnings. Yankee legend Joe DiMaggio and Red Sox immortal Ted Williams played each March in the Grapefruit League prior to a full season at Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park. They were idolized both for prowess on the field and classy public demeanor.
Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 has a gourmet baseball connection. Chef Todd English, a Boston Red Sox fan, played baseball in college and was in the stands when Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record in Atlanta. The chef extraordinaire recalls many priceless moments watching spring baseball in Florida. The luxury liner has one restaurant that critic’s say stands out above all the others: The Todd English.