It’s time to play ball! On Thursday, the first pitch of the Major League Baseball Spring Training season is being thrown in Florida. The six-week schedule of ballgames is expected to bring big tourism dollars to the state.
Lifelong Philadelphia Phillies fan Mike Lederer bought his plane ticket to Florida back in December. He said, he can’t wait to be in the Clearwater stadium with a crowd just a small fraction the size of what he’s used to back home.
“It’s a much more intimate setting to watch a game, a much more relaxed setting to watch a game, and you can get really close to the players and have great interactions with them, and it’s just a different type of baseball game,” he said.
He’s just one of the roughly 1 million people state tourism experts expect to travel to the Sunshine State for Spring Training this year.
John Webb, president of the Florida Sports Foundation, said, teams like the Detroit Tigers have been playing in the same city for almost 80 years. And their fans get to know their way around quite well.
“People do know the area, they know when and what they’re coming to do and entertain themselves, and they love to get out of the cold weather and come to the state of Florida this time of year,” he said.
Webb said, based on last year’s numbers, fans will likely spend more than $750 million in Florida between now and mid-April. Some of that money goes to places like Lenny’s Restaurant in Clearwater.
Lenny’s general manager Kevin Schauer said, “It means we hire six new people. Fifty-thousand catered meals in six weeks.”
In the roughly 30 years it’s been in business, Lenny’s has been serving thousands of Phillies and Toronto Blue Jays fans every day during Spring Training. In 2008, Schauer said, the restaurant became the official caterer of the Phillies team. And that was apparently good luck.
“That year, they won the World Series,” he said.
Major League Baseball teams started moving their Spring Training to Florida 125 years ago. The first to migrate south was the Washington Nationals in Jacksonville. Today, 15 professional teams are playing pre-season games in 14 cities throughout Central and South Florida.
And for fans like Mike Lederer, it’s worth the trek from the Northeast to be at his team’s first game of the year.
“Right now, every fan of every team at least can hope that their team can win the World Series this year. And once the real games start, a lot of them will realize that’s not the case. But right now at least you can have that hope,” he said.
And, hoping to keep Florida’s relationship with Major League Baseball going strong, Gov. Rick Scott is hosting a reception for team reps Thursday night in Sarasota. Scott will also be at the Atlanta Braves-Detroit Tigers game next week in Lakeland, working alongside the grounds crew and serving ballpark hot dogs.