If you're from Chicago or Cincinnati and traveled to Florida for spring training, chances are you've been to Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota. Built in 1989, Ed Smith Stadium replaced the older and smaller Payne Park, which itself was home to the New York Giants, the Red Sox, and the White Sox. Located outside of downtown Sarasota and northeast of the former spring training home, Ed Smith Stadium ensured the White Sox would stay in-town for another eight years, after which - in 1998 - the Reds called Ed Smith their spring home-away-from-home until 2009, when they moved to Goodyear, Arizona.
When it was first built, it had an outdoor concourse wrapping around the outside of the park with no shading except in the tunnels leading to the seating area and the upper areas of the seating bowl. This concourse housed all the concessions and facilities, so it would constantly be congested with people looking to buy, maneuver, and go. There was no upper-deck of which to speak, as access was only available from those lower entrances. Plus, the main entrance, for lack of a better analogy, looked like a cheap motel, complete with miscellaneous doors and railing, as well as steps down the side. Again, if you're from Chicago or Cincinnati, you probably spent a great deal of springs here and know what I'm talking about.
When I went back in 2009, the Reds last year there, I didn't like it really much at all: it was uninspiring, cluttered, and tight. I admit, when I heard the Orioles were moving in, the first question that came to mind was, "Why would a team that plays in beautiful Camden Yards want to play in a dump like this?" Well, they told the city of Sarasota, the owners, that they'd pay for renovations, with a 30-year lease in return.
Ladies and gentlemen, prepare to have your mind blown by the transformation this park has taken.
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Where do I even start? You want typical fare? Done. How about warm weather favorites, like fresh lemonade, Italian ice, and soft-serve ice cream? Got it. Funnel cake? Jalapeno poppers? Bratwurst? Smoothies? Veggie burgers? Yes, yup, of course, totally, and whoda thunk! They even have Cafe 54 (named for the year the Orioles came to Baltimore from St. Louis), which serves made-to-order subs and (of course) Maryland crab soup.
Are you an adult that loves fermented flora? You're in luck: not only are the beer selections pretty good at the regular food stands, but there's even an "international beer" kiosk that serves pretty much any style of beer and cider you can imagine.
The only concern I have is the food is a little pricey. While I was full, a hot dog, poppers, and a 32 oz drink set me back $13. Beer was $7+, depending on what you got, and with a family of four, you're starting to jump into regular season expenditures in March. Sure it's a new stadium, but knowing they'll be here until at least 2041, the Orioles have time to make their money back, and should price accordingly.
It's all-but-brand-new, so what do you expect? The seats are immaculate (fun fact: every seat in the house was brought in from Camden Yards, refurbished, and installed), every detail is gleaming, and the landscaping both inside and out is well-maintained. The stadium itself is a little out of the way for those wanting to go to downtown Sarasota and the beach areas, but otherwise, it's pretty close to perfect.
The scoreboard in right-center is large, easy to read, and even includes oriole-shaped weather veins on-top. The audio system is definitely audible; loud enough to hear over the crowds, but not enough to cause your ear drums to implode.
I'm kind of being generous here, as there are signs of life happening again. Ed Smith is located in a weird amalgamation of high-, middle-, and lower-class residential, lower-end commercial, and industrial, all within a half-mile. There's not really much to do around there, but I certainly didn't fear for my safety. It's just a strange combination I don't think I've seen before and doubt I'll see anywhere else.
The good news is, you're just minutes from downtown and the beaches, so you can drive places, just don't plan on walking.
On the day I went, at first pitch, Baltimore was 54° and Detroit (the opponent) was 37°. Sarasota...well, it was 71° and crystal clear skies. Thusly, the stadium was filled to the rafters with loyal fans from the North looking for escapes and their boys of summer to finally return. The Orioles fans in the house even got their signature "O!" chant in during the national anthem, where the entire stadium loudly emphasizes the first syllable of "Oh, say does that..." (seeing as Francis Scott Key wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner" in Baltimore at Fort McHenry, I think they get a free pass).
Tigers fans made their presence known, as well, during a two-run first for them, though the split was probably about 70/30, in favor of the Orioles. In any case, it had the feel of an August game in March, and that, right there, is what spring training is all about.
The stadium complex is kind of isolated from the main routes around the area: Interstate 75 is five miles away, and U.S. Routes 41 and 301 are a seemingly-long one-to-two miles away. However, when you finally get there, there's plenty of parking to be had - for a price. Park at a little league complex near the far corner of the Ed Smith complex, you'll pay about $10. Wanna park across the street from home plate? Try $20, or more.
Once inside, a funny thing happens: the lower concourse is actually tighter than the upper one, meaning it's easier to navigate upstairs. Not sure how the physics work in that case, but I found, with the same amount of crowds in both sections, much more maneuverability up on top. Bathrooms abound and all are clean and large.
It's spring ball, so you can't go wrong anyway. However, there are so many options for food, drink, and seating, all of which are excellent, money is well-spent here. Ed Smith has quickly become one of the best ballparks in Florida, all in the course of one year's transformation.
When you enter from the home plate entrance, banners hang marking their playoff appearances, including their three World Series wins in 1966, 1970, and 1983. Those same numbers are repeated in the names of their suites along the first base line, Suites 66, 70, and 83.
There are also a number of additions I haven't mentioned in the stadium that never existed before. They include:
- Seating in the outfield which, in this case, is left,
- A canopy that covers the entire seating area, not just the first 5 sections to each side of home, with a fabric extension that covers twice as many seats,
- A covered lower concourse that lets you get out of the sun while queuing for concessions, and
- A brand-new design to the outer facade, which is now designed to look much more Mediterranean, blending into the theme of Sarasota's iconic buildings.
Along with two party terrace areas near the bullpens and the Third Base Lounge, an enclosed bar on the upper level with full views of the field, you're guaranteed to leave with a smile on your face, even if your team lost.
Even though it was built in 1989, a renovation was badly needed to keep Ed Smith Stadium a viable option for Major League teams. Thankfully, the Orioles organization were open enough to make their own, custom upgrades to this park. They obviously put a lot of care and thoughtfulness into the redesign, and it shows in every minute detail.
Sarasota now has a stadium they can be proud of again; since the team isn't going anywhere for a while, you'll definitely have a chance to see this new jewel in the crown of the Grapefruit League. Come on down and see the new Ed Smith; it shines brightest in March.
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