CLEARWATER — Zach Emmett sprawled on a grassy area just outside the fence Wednesday afternoon at Bright House Networks Field and soaked in the sun.
Earlier in the day, the 16-year-old from Lacey Township, N.J., had snagged the autographs of Philadelphia Phillies stars Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard.
In the afternoon, Emmett was eyeing a signature from Chase Utley. A baseball in one hand, a pen in the other, Emmett lay in the deep, green grass and waited.
"This is sweet because it's about 40 degrees at home," the high school junior said, his hand over his eyes to block the sun. "It's nice and sunny here."
For the last three years, Emmett has skipped a week of school and headed to Clearwater — the preseason home of the Phillies — for the start of spring training.
Local team officials welcome the autograph seekers and expect even more this year in the wake of the Phillies' World Series championship last fall.
"Last year was our best year ever," said John Timberlake, who has been director of the Phillies' Florida operations for 13 years and with the club for 24 years. "We are on pace to do better than last year."
During last year's four-week run, the Phillies drew 115,000 fans to 15 home spring training games. This year, they've already sold 97,000 tickets for the 18 scheduled home games, Timberlake said. About 1,500 tickets are usually sold on game day at the window, he said.
Because of the bigger expectations, Timberlake said he has had to hire additional ticket takers, concession stand workers and security. He said he is up 80 workers on game days.
"We are hiring more people than ever," Timberlake said.
While the World Series victory appears to be the main reason Phillies' ticket sales are booming, there might be another factor.
The Tampa Bay Rays' move from St. Petersburg to Port Charlotte for spring training has left the Phillies and the Toronto Blue Jays, who train in Dunedin, as the only spring training sites in Pinellas County.
"We picked up people who had season tickets at Al Lang and now they have no place to go," Timberlake said. "They would drive to Clearwater but not two hours."
The Blue Jays have not experienced a huge surge in overall sales, but there has been an increase in sales for their two home games against the Rays, March 13 and 20.
"The idea that the Rays moved so far away, their fans would rather come to Dunedin and see them up close and personal rather than make the drive two hours away," said Shelby Nelson, the Blue Jays' director and general manager of Florida operations.
The Rays may have an impact on the Phillies in another way.
Because the Phillies' World Series victory came against the region's home team, the celebration has been tempered here. No outrageous Phillies banners lining Clearwater's main street. No huge billboards as northerners cross the Courtney Campbell Parkway from the airport.
But for some local businesses, the enthusiasm still is high.
"I have a few rooms left and that's a wonderful thing," said Alice Young, director of sales and marking for the La Quinta Inn Clearwater Central. "I always tell people we are 876 steps from our door to the Phillies door. But I'm 5 foot 2 and if you are 6 feet, it's less steps than that."
For the Residence Inn by Marriott on Clearwater's Court Street, spring training could not be more timely. The hotel opened just five months ago.
It is running a special for Phillies fans at $99 a night. Fliers were placed in promotional items that were sent to Philadelphia and to all season ticket holders.
About 65 percent of the Phillies' spring training visitors come from out of state.
"I can't tell you what we expect because we are so new," said Cori Johnson, director of sales and marketing of the Court Street location. "We can only hope that we are going to get some influx."
Timberlake said spring baseball "has its own atmosphere."
"You can smell the grass, the pine tar," he said. "There are the sights, sounds and smell of spring. Every team is 0-0. Every team is the greatest and has a chance. There's something really magical about that."
Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 445-4174 or firstname.lastname@example.org