Ah, another year of Spring Training. I’ve been going to Spring Training since about 2008. Not every year, but almost every. One year I missed because I decided on going to the Dominican Republic instead and last year we unfortunately had to cancel our plans due to Pop-Pop Milsted becoming very sick. He is the main reason we go. When I say we, the trip usually consists of Pop-Pop Milsted, Uncle Darin, Mom, Dad, and Rebekah.
This year everyone was able to attend except Rebekah, so we utilized the flight vouchers we had left over from 2017’s cancellation. We’ve had some solid trips down to Clearwater/St. Pete Beach. One year we decided to take one of the beach days and go check out Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. This Busch Gardens is African themed and not as good as the one in Williamsburg, Virginia… but still very enjoyable, fun, and clean! That was my second time going to BGTB. The other was back in about 2005, so it had been quite a while and a lot had changed. It was certainly the highlight of our Spring Training trip in 2016.
(From left to right: the front entrance of Busch Gardens Tampa & Uncle Darin, Dad, and myself on Falcon’s Fury)
The best year I experienced was 2014. So much happened that year. The highlight of that year was meeting (the now late) Phillies ace pitcher, Roy Halladay, and having him sign my ticket from his playoff no-hitter in 2010.
The story goes like this… back in 2010 my dad and I went to a playoff baseball game. It was the Phillies vs. Reds in the NLDS. Roy Halladay made his first career playoff start and proceeded to throw the 2nd EVER no hitter in MLB postseason history. Fast forward 4 years… we were down in Clearwater, FL for Spring Training and ended up at a benefit for a youth team Roy Halladay was helping coach. Roy was in attendance and we got to meet him. We asked if he would sign our tickets from the playoff no hitter. He told us it was, hands down, the coolest thing anyone had ever asked him to sign. Upon signing he asked if we would like him to sign the date of the game, as playoff tickets are always marked TBD. I told him absolutely, if he remembered the date of the game. His response was, “I better, it’s my son’s birthday.”
That same year at the benefit, we met Chase Utley and Cole Hamels. Uncle Darin asked Cole Hamels if he could have a picture with his wife, not Cole. Utley quickly responded with, “She has a website for that.” We died laughing at his quick witted comment.
At the benefit, we were able to win an “on field experience,” in a silent auction. The experience took place at the next Spring Training game. We were able to watch batting practice from the dugout and even meet a bunch of players and staff. My sister’s favorite, Bobby Abreu, even stopped for pictures!
The coolest part of this experience however, was they let Pop-Pop Milsted throw a few pitches from the mound… to me! His pitches weren’t thrown as well as he’d hoped, but the fans cheered him on anyway. A few even yelled, “sign him up as the 5th starter!” That is a memory I will never forget.
Onto this year… we went down to Saint Pete’s Beach from March 8th to March 12th, a day less than usual, as we were trying not to to miss “too” much work and we weren’t sure how well Pop-Pop would be getting around. He did far better than expected so that extra day was missed.
The past few years we’ve gone to one home Phillies game, one away Phillies game, had a day for the beach, and a day for something random. This year we we’re supposed to be skipping the day for something random, but since the weather wasn’t as great as we’d hoped, my dad and I turned the beach day into the random day. We ended up buying last minute tickets to the Tampa Bay Lightning game!
The Lightning played the Montreal Canadiens that day and won 3-2 in a shootout. It was an exciting game, but the stadium (Amalie Arena) was the best part. It’s definitely one of the best hockey venues I’ve ever been to. They even had a real Tesla coil up in the rafters that would light up every time Tampa scored a goal.
Neither of us were disappointed in our choice of the game over a cloudy beach day… that’s for sure!
The away game this year would take place in Sarasota against the Baltimore Orioles. Their stadium (Ed Smith Stadium) is the perfect size for Spring Training. No matter where you sit here would be a good spot. You’re so close to the game that you feel like you’re at a high school game, but watching pros. Really enjoyed it there, however we went to a night game. If you intend on going to a day game, there isn’t much shade so be sure to pack the sun screen that day!
Since the away game was a night game, we took that opportunity to explore some new sites during the day. We decided on going to check out the Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary, which was also in Sarasota. I’m going to be honest… on our way to the Big Cat Habitat, I thought we were just going to a zoo. I was wrong. This place was much more than a zoo. It was a more intimate experience with the animals (mostly large cats – per obvious reason). You could feed the bears, lions, and tigers which I obviously had to try and they had the typical “petting” zoo aspect with goats and a few other critters.
They brought out some of the lions and tigers for everyone to meet, including a liger. One of the lions even shared a cage with his best friend, Ghost (a wolf).
It is a sanctuary for these exotic animals that were mostly owned by rich people who decided one day they didn’t want the hassle of an exotic pet anymore. It’s always sad hearing stories like this. I could never imagine giving up on my pets and just ditching them. Some of them came from zoos that couldn’t stay afloat anymore. We got to meet Clayton Rosaire, who is the vice president, and he told us a bunch of his stories about saving these animals. Even had a few stories from back in the day when he was working with lions at Clementon Amusement Park in New Jersey! Big Cat Habitat was certainly the highlight of our 2018 trip.
(Before making my post, I asked my friend, Keith (who works for PETA), about the Big Cat Habitat. He said he had never heard of it, but he would look into it. I was curious to see if the feelings I had towards it were legit or if there was anything hiding under the surface. Keith sent me back this article. I guess I was wrong… I’ll let you be the judge though. https://www.peta.org/blog/peta-asks-leonardo-dicaprio-to-help-save-wolf-of-wall-street-co-star/)
After we left the habitat we decide to drive past the “Unconditional Surrender” sculpture. So much history behind this thing, it was cool to see in person. definitely a one and done type of adventure, but worth the 10 minute drive. If you don’t know the history behind this sculpture, look it up! The whole backstory of the guy and girl would probably be part of the “me too” movement if it happened today. You can see what I’m talking about here: https://nypost.com/2012/06/17/the-true-story-behind-the-iconic-v-j-day-sailor-and-nurse-smooch/
Our Spring Training trips are not complete without stops at Lenny’s and Bongo’s. Bongo’s is the beach bar at Grand Plaza Beachfront Resort Hotel, the hotel we always stay at in St. Pete’s Beach. It’s the perfect beach bar. Nice drinks, a perfect view of the sunset, and good food. It took me until this year to finally try their wings, but the jerk chicken flavor wings are to die for! I could hang at Bongo’s all day and night (and a few times that may have actually happened).
Lenny’s is a must for any Phillies fan. If you aren’t a Phillies fan, you could probably skip stopping, but you’ll miss out on some tasty food. We always stop at Lenny’s for breakfast on our way to the home Phillies’ game because its only a few blocks away. If you’ve never heard of Lenny’s, its a Phillies themed diner. Every year they have a different painting on the windows. If you don’t have tickets to the game or if you’re trying to get rid of tickets, this is the spot to go. Sit down to a nice meal and listen to the announcements. There are always fellow fans searching for or giving away tickets. Oh, and don’t forget to ask for the fresh danish basket when you order your meal… mmmmm!
Hopefully this wasn’t our last venture down to Spring Training. I certainly hope its a tradition we can keep going because things certainly wouldn’t be the same without seeing the Phillies in Florida with the family. If you haven’t seen your favorite team at Spring Training, make it a point to go. Even if you don’t have a favorite team, go and enjoy the experience. You won’t be disappointed!