CLEARWATER — As the oldest of all professional American sports, Major League Baseball revels in its 150-year-old traditions. But for Philadelphia Phillies spring training games at Spectrum Field, flashy fashion, food and modern technology are making a play for fans.
New baseball caps have wild prints. Shrimp avocado tacos are at the concession stand. You can text a number to report security concerns. And your Uber or Lyft driver now has a designated pick-up spot at the south gate.
One of the most noticeable changes is the 14-foot-tall netting extended to stretch along the foul lines. The netting used to end at the dugouts. Major League Baseball came under fire the last few seasons for the increase in foul balls and fans getting seriously injured. Commissioner Rob Manfred made it mandatory that all 30 teams do this by the start of the 2020 season.
“We certainly want to let fans have access to foul balls, but we think the safety of fans is ultimately the most important thing,” said John Timberlake, the Phillies director of Florida operations.
The Phillies aren’t the only team trying to give spring training fans a more cushy experience. The Toronto Blue Jays’ first spring training home games get started Monday in Dunedin in an expanded TD Ballpark, with a new boardwalk that wraps around the entire outfield. It has new bars down the third baseline as well as a new Jays Shop, a kids zone in the concourse along left field and renovated bathrooms and concessions.
It’s a much glitzier scene than the spring training games that decades ago were beloved for their small fields and easy access to players for autographs.
George and Barbara Whiteley of Philadelphia, both clad in classic red, blue and white Phillies jackets, hats and tops, were here for their 34th spring training season. They are longtime season ticket holders back home, but like the accessibility spring training affords them.
George, 82, understands the need for the netting extension, but grumbled, “They have so many restrictions today.”
Barbara, 72, estimated she has close to a 1,000 signed baseballs thanks to her “relentless” pursuit of players during spring training. She flashed a CoreStates credit card she got in the late ’80s with Mike Schmidt’s picture. She chased him down in Clearwater, she said, telling him, “I’ve been waiting your whole career for this." He told her he wasn’t aware his picture had been on the credit cards.
The card expired in 1994 but she still keeps it encased in plastic in her wallet with Schmidt’s signature preserved on the front.
Phillies fans still have access to players in the stadium’s pass-through in sections 118 and 119, Timberlake said. But the Whiteleys fondly recalled catching up with players just outside the dugout, now blocked by the netting.
Other signs of modern times include a dozen stations where fans can get free SPF 30 sunscreen from touch-free dispensers doling out glops. The park also upgraded the software on its metal detectors at the gates so fans will no longer have to remove keys, phones and small objects from their pockets, which should speed up entry, Timberlake said.
The menu has been upgraded with a new fish spread, crab cake sandwich and shrimp avocado tacos from the company behind Crabby’s Dockside on Clearwater Beach. Other new offerings include Hooters wings and sandwiches and sides at Port-A-Pit BBQ. Concession stands will have buffalo cauliflower, Popical flavored popcorn and spicy cheese curds. Beer enthusiasts have more local craft brews to choose from in McGillicuddy’s Irish Pub, named for Connie Mack, the legendary owner of the Philadelphia club and one of the league’s founders.
Barbara Warner, the merchandise buyer and manager in the park’s Diamond Outfitters store, showed off dozens of brightly colored baseball hats and neon golf shirts emblazoned with the Phillies logo. Many are festooned with palm trees and in tropical colors like shrimp, turquoise and coral. The hats cost $28 to $42 and shirts in light, moisture-wicking fabric run $62 to $92.
Warner first asked her bosses to push the envelope for spring training fans in 2008.
“I understand we have that fan that wants the classic red and blue, but we also have others, and I had to fight for the colors because my vendors didn’t offer it,” Warner said. Tropical ball caps have been a big hit with vacationers looking for a souvenir they can take back to Philly.
“Our store looks nothing like a traditional ballpark," Warner said.
Fans who showed up early for batting practice Friday got a chance to try some of the new food. The fish spread from Crabby’s was a hit. Barbara Whiteley really liked the grouper bites from Abe’s Place, which also has a restaurant on Missouri Avenue in Clearwater. But tradition still reigns for her.
“When you go to a ballpark, you’ve got to have a hot dog," she said. “Because there’s nothing like a hot dog here.”
IF YOU GO
The team has home spring training games at 1:05 p.m. Monday (Baltimore), Tuesday (Toronto), Friday (Atlanta) and Sunday (Baltimore). $14-$28. Spectrum Field, 601 N Old Coachman Road, Clearwater. (727) 712-4300. Find the schedule and tickets at phillies.com.