Take Me Out to Spring Training

In the next month, more than three million people will attend spring training games in Florida and Arizona. Travel + Leisure Family writer Richard Panek took his two sons last year and breaks down the ins and outs of the adventure.

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(Soundbite of song "Take Me Out to the Ball Game")

Mr. FRANK CALIENDO (Impressionist, Comedian): (Singing) Take me out to the baseball game? Are you really taking me? Are you taking me to the ball game, huh? Take me out with the mob. It's "Sopranos" night. Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack. You Cracker Jack. I don't care if you never get back. Seriously, I do not care.

ALISON STEWART, host:

That's impressionist Frank Caliendo singing about the joys of baseball in many different voices. And yes, we're close to a new season, spring, three-and-a-half weeks away. You have spring training, you have spring fever, and then you have your spring break and maybe you have kids who have a week off. Here's an option, a spring training holiday for people who don't want to wait for the boys of summer to come to them.

According to Travel and Leisure, in the next month the 30 major league baseball teams' exhibition games will bring nearly two million to Florida and Arizona while some tourist sites boast even higher numbers. One of those million was writer and author Richard Panek. He took his two sons to spring training last year, and he wrote about in the current issue of Travel and Leisure magazine. Thanks for being in-studio.

Mr. RICHARD PANEK, (Writer, Travel and Leisure Magazine): Thank you for inviting me.

STEWART: So why did you decide to embark on this trip with your boys, instead of some more traditional vacation ideas?

Mr. PANEK: Well, we were stuck looking for something to do over spring break. And my older son who is a huge baseball fan - he was 16 at the time, he's 17 now - suggested spring training, and all of the pieces just fell into place. I said, sure. I mean, it just sounded great.

STEWART: So you wrote about your game plan on doing this is to check out the cactus league teams in Arizona. You wrote, rather than follow any one team, we would sample ballparks, players and nachos grandes. Flying out of New York on a chilly Saturday morning, we had our starting line-up: four days, five ballparks, seven teams.

Mr. PANEK: That's right.

STEWART: How did you decide on this agenda?

Mr. PANEK: Well, we basically let the schedule lead us, which was part of the pleasure of it. Rather than feeling constrained by anything, we just threw ourselves at it. We looked online, figured out what teams were playing when and then just followed our nose.

STEWART: Now, why did you opt for Arizona over Florida?

Mr. PANEK: Well, partly it was just a financial concern. Florida was much more expensive, for whatever reason. People, I guess, are going down to Florida in the spring much more so than Arizona. Arizona also - we didn't realize this in advance - but it really offers an advantage over Florida if you're going to minor-league baseball games, in that all the parks are in fairly close proximity to each other. I don't remember how many, like, eight or nine ballparks are always in the Phoenix metropolitan area, and then there are a couple more in Tucson. But you could just stay within 45 minutes on the freeway and just cover all of the ballparks you wanted.

STEWART: So let me ask you a couple more nuts and bolts kind of questions.

Mr. PANEK: Sure.

STEWART: Was it difficult to score tickets and did they cost a fortune?

Mr. PANEK: They didn't cost a fortune. You could spend a lot if you wanted. You could spend 15, 20 dollars. Some teams, like the Chicago Cubs, are perennial favorites, they sell-out in advance. We weren't going to get tickets for them. Although you could...

STEWART: If you planned enough in advance.

Mr. PANEK: If you planned enough in advance, certainly. And they also -scalping is legal in Arizona. So you could get tickets just from somebody standing on the roadside a block from the ballpark.

STEWART: So you're pretty guaranteed to get to see a game everyday.

Mr. PANEK: Yes, certainly. And sometimes two games, if there's an evening game.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: So once you're at the parks, you sort of describe it as an intimate experience you can have if you're really a baseball fan.

Mr. PANEK: Right.

STEWART: What makes it so intimate?

Mr. PANEK: Well, it's the size of the ballparks. These are basically minor league size ballparks, maybe 10,000 attendance. And if you're in that kind of ballpark situation, it's really like going to a small town ballpark but you're seeing major league baseball players, so you're right on top of the action. Things are much more informal during the spring than they are during the season. The players will often come over and just stand along the base paths and chat with the fans. They'll come over during the game and sign autographs, which I've never seen happen.

STEWART: Wow.

Mr. PANEK: It's probably not even allowed in real major league baseball games. But they're much more accessible. And because the ballpark is smaller, you also have more of a chance of getting a baseball. My older son regretted that he left his baseball mitt in the car the first game we went to because there was a long fly ball, it came right to him, and the guy next to him got it because he brought his baseball mitt.

STEWART: Okay. Note to self: if you're taking your kid on this trip, make sure you bring the baseball glove. I'm also imagining your kids really need to be a certain age.

Mr. PANEK: Oh, I would think so, yes. At the time, they were 12 and 16, so they could wander a little bit on their own. It's a very family-friendly atmosphere. So you don't - you're not concerned, you don't have to keep your eye on them all the time if they're of the appropriate age.

And there are actually a lot of things for kids to do. For younger kids, a lot of the ballparks have little play areas. And I remember one ballpark had a merry-go-round, even. So, you know, they're definitely trying to appeal to a family audience.

STEWART: And we should mention that your wife stayed home. She had work to do.

Mr. PANEK: She did. She's a writer.

STEWART: Did she really have work to do, or did she not want to come?

Mr. PANEK: No, she was on a deadline.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PANEK: And she said, if there's going to be a spring break trip this year, it's not going to involve me. And I think that that's partly the inspiration for my older son saying let's go to spring training, because he knew that this was something Mom was never going to do.

STEWART: We're speaking with Richard Panek. He took his two sons to spring training last year. One of the many people getting involved in spring training vacations. Can we keep you for a few seconds?

Mr. PANEK: Oh, sure, please.

STEWART: I have a couple more questions for you.

Mr. PANEK: Especially if I get a nose clip at the end.

STEWART: All right.

STEWART: It's actually kind of oddly entertaining. All right. Stay with us here at THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT. We're going to continue this discussion. We'll also get some new music. It's new music Tuesday. Who's got new albums out, new releases?

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Janet Jackson, Dolly Parton, Erykah Badu. Good stuff.

STEWART: All right. Stay with us here at THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

STEWART: Hey, thank you for listening to THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News. We are available online, on AM, FM, satellite, and always at npr.org/bryantpark. I'm Alison Stewart along with Rachel Martin. And we're going to finish up our conversation with writer and author, Richard Panek. His piece "Boys of Spring" appears in the current issue of Travel and Leisure. And Richard we were talking about how to you took your boys for their spring break, to spring training, and what a great vacation this can be for a family.

Mr. PANEK: Right.

STEWART: But your wife stayed home 'cause she had work to do. So I'm going to play her role. Did these kids just eat hot dogs and garlic fries for a week?

Mr. PANEK: Ah, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Yeah?

Mr. PANEK: Yeah.

STEWART: Do you have to be kind of prepared on that front?

Mr. PANEK: Well, you know, after the first game I just threw all caution to the wind.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PANEK: And there isn't much wind in Arizona. But it's okay, I threw it out there anyway. And I just said, whatever you guys want to order, you can order. And then I applied the same rule to myself, so I had a lot of nachos grandes, and I sampled the premium beers...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PANEK: And watched our budget stretch a little bit there, but that's all right.

STEWART: I can imagine that that actually would take a little bit of a toll on your budget.

Mr. PANEK: Yes.

STEWART: Because it seems like you could do this for...you know, it's an economical vacation, but food at the ballparks cost a fortune.

Mr. PANEK: It does. And, you know, some of the ballparks were more reasonable. They would have $3 hot dogs, but some of them were pushing toward major league prices, you know, $5, $6 hot dogs. But, you know, if you come prepared...and you certainly don't have to eat at the ballpark all the time.

STEWART: Do you have sort of one of those moments, I call them mental postcards from vacations that you take with you forever, about this trip that you took with your boys out to Arizona, to see all these games and all these stadiums during spring training?

Mr. PANEK: Well, I think that probably the highlight of the trip for the boys was actually not during a game, it was during batting practice. As I said earlier, there's a lot of proximity to the players. And so during batting practice - it wasn't in the stadium itself. They had a batting practice field next door across the parking lot, and there were probably about 100, 150 people in the parking lot just shagging the fly balls - they kept flying over the fence - and talking to the outfielder. He was standing in the outfield; he was actually a pitcher named Kelvim Escobar. And my older son got his autograph afterwards because the players have to walk back from the batting practice field to the regular ballpark, and they go through the parking lot. And you can station yourself there and get autographs if you want. So I think that was the highlight of the trip for him.

And for me, I was on my cell phone and almost got hit by a home run. So I'm glad I'm here.

STEWART: You can read the tale of Richard and his son's spring training in the current issue of Travel and Leisure. Thanks for coming by the studio.

Mr. PANEK: Thank you.

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