End of February means spring training

Catch the big leaguers, upcoming players and a few entertainment stars

Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota
Ed Smith Stadium - Since a $31 million overhaul in 2011 this ball park of the Baltimore Orioles is now considered to be one of the best facilities in Florida.

March means spring training baseball where the 15 teams of the Grapefruit League center around the Sarasota area. And if you want to see the stars up close in these smaller ballparks, this is your chance. You may even catch a star of another entertainment circuit practicing with the big-leaguers. Garth Brooks is participating in the Pittsburgh Pirate organization at LECOM Field in Bradenton. Tim Tebow turned down an offer to play quarterback in the newly created Alliance of American Football for an opportunity to enter spring training with the New York Mets in Port St. Lucie.

Back in the day Michael Jordan practiced with the Chicago White Sox for a month in Sarasota 25 years ago. Billy Crystal played in a New York Yankees game against the Pirates on his 60th birthday. Tom Selleck struck out as a pinch hitter for the Detroit Tigers in a 6-4 loss to Cincinnati. Since then the Reds have moved to the Cactus League and hold their spring training games in Goodyear, Arizona. Musician Bruce Hornsby was a pinch runner for the Angels in 1997. Kevin Costner played shortstop, went 0 for 3 at the plate and pitched to manager Lou Piniella in the final inning of an exhibition game with the Seattle Mariners. Baseball reporter Tom Verducci spent five days with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2005 for a Sports Illustrated cover story.

This is where the stars of the future play alongside the established baseball players beginning February 23. The whole month of March you can drive within a couple hours to follow your favorite team in Florida. And if you are an Atlanta Braves fan accustomed to driving to Lake Buena Vista, your team will be training in the new Cool Today Park in North Port. Ticketmaster has incorrectly listed the sports complex in Venice for its stadium opening on the last day of training March 24 with a pre-season game featuring the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays actually have their spring training in Port Charlotte, away from their home stadium of Tropicana Field.

In Sarasota the Baltimore Orioles hold their spring training at Ed Smith Stadium with 17 home games on the schedule, starting with the first game on Saturday as they host the Minnesota Twins. The Orioles are looking to rebuild this year following their 47-115 record in 2018, 61 games out of first place and the worst record for the franchise. All-star shortstop Manny Machado was traded to the Dodgers mid-season so the roster is open for new talent. The pitchers and catchers reported last week, returning with a disastrous starting rotation. No starting pitcher had a winning record. Dylan Bundy, Andrew Cashner, Alex Cobb and David Hess are in the depth chart for the starting rotation this year. Richard Bleier had the best ERA from the bullpen at 1.93, with 3 wins and 0 losses.

They begin the full roster training today to begin their rebuilding year. Baltimore great Frank Robinson died in February, possibly sparking the team posthumously. His Baltimore Oriole jersey number 20 was retired and will be worn as a patch on the team’s uniforms this year. Filling the shoes of Machado is a concern for rookie manager Brandon Hyde. They recently signed veteran shortstop Alcides Escobar, a Gold Glove winner and past All-Star who hit .231 with four home runs in 2018. Outfielder Adam Jones played for the Orioles for the last 10 seasons, is a free agent possibly ready to rejoin his team. Slugger first baseman Chris Davis has had two slumping seasons but hopes this season will be a rebounding one for him. Watch the team develop with a young squad.

LECOM Park in Bradenton
Pirates spring training at LECOM Park in Bradenton

The Pittsburgh Pirates finished with a more respectable record over .500 at 82-79, but finished 13 games behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central division. They open in Clearwater on Saturday to play the Philadelphia Phillies and have their home opener in Bradenton on Sunday versus the Miami Marlins at 1:05 PM. The stadium was renamed LECOM Park in 2017 and is the oldest stadium used for spring training. Constructed in 1914, its renovations this decade revitalized the park into a modern marvel. Many have known the stadium as McKechnie Field since the 1960s, named in honor of former Pirates manager Bill McKechnie. LECOM Park received its naming rights through an agreement with the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, its main campus in Erie, Pennsylvania and branch campus in eastern Bradenton.

Starting pitchers Jameson Taillon returns from his 14-10 record with former Tampa Bay starter Chris Archer, who finished with a 6 and 8 win-loss record last year. Right-hand pitcher Trevor Williams also finished 2018 with a successful season with a 14-10 record and ERA of 3.11. Manager Clint Hurdle, now in his eighth Pirate season, has a strong bullpen with most of his relievers heralding a winning record in 2018 with low ERAs, possibly led by newcomer Keone Kela. A 2018 All-star, Felipe Vázquez, returns to the bullpen for the Pirates. He had 17 saved games last year and finished with a 4 and 2 record.

The Pirates have 15 home games in LECOM Park, enough to see the team that will contend for the divisional title. Josh Bell anchors the infield at first base and with his bat, finishing with 26 home runs in his second year in the majors. Adam Frazier at second base will likely be leadoff hitter for the Pirates this season as he enters his fourth season. The Pirates could not come to terms with their starter at second, Josh Harrison opening the door for Frazier. Right-fielder Gregory Polanco had 23 home runs in 2018 before he was injured in September. The Pirates have brought in Lonnie Chisenhall from the Indians to hold the position until Polanco returns from surgery, sometime before mid-season.

When the major leaguers pack their bags to start the regular season up north, the Bradenton Marauders take the field at LECOM. The Pirates' farm team, a Class A-Advanced affiliate in the Florida State League plays a 71-game schedule beginning at home April 6 in their third game of the season. Ed Smith Stadium has been the site for teams in the Gulf Coast League, although a schedule has not been released for 2019. Watch rising stars and have a nice day at the ball park April through August. And if you want to be close to your Pirates or Orioles in March, please contact me at (941) 387-1840 for an exclusive showing of a house you have in mind or if you have a property to sell or buy.