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Tom Jones’ Two Cents guide to spring training

By Tom Jones
Published: February 17, 2018 Updated: February 17, 2018 at 10:14 AM
Tampa Bay Rays players practice Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018, in Port Charlotte. (CHRIS URSO | Times)

Times columnist Tom Jones give his Two Cents guide to spring training.

Best place to watch a game

Bradenton's LECOM Park, although if you're a true Floridian and spring training aficionado, you still and will always refer to it as McKechnie Field. The quaint stadium with the boardwalk was actually built in 1923, but has been updated several times, including a major renovation in 2013. Technically, it's the third-oldest stadium currently used by a major-league team after Fenway Park and Wrigley Field. It has been the spring home of the Pirates since 1969. What makes it so special? It's hard to put into words other than saying it is exactly what spring training is supposed to be.

Best concession

A Philly cheesesteak at, where else, Spectrum Field in Clearwater, home of the Phillies. It might not quite be the level of the legendary Pat's or Geno's on the corner of Ninth Street and Passyunk in Philadelphia, but it's pretty doggone tasty. It makes up for the so-so baseball the Phillies are playing these days. Not that Philly cares. It has the Eagles.

Best place to troll

Drive down to Fort Myers, wear a Dennis Eckersley shirt, then go ask Boston's David Price to sign it. You can also get a glance at the American League team that seems to be flying under the radar, but just might be good enough to win the pennant. That is, if Price pitches like he's supposed to.

Boston Red Sox starting pitcher David Price practices a drill during baseball spring training, Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018, in Fort Myers, Fla. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Best reason to go watch the Rays

The ghost of Matt Duffy! Maybe we'll actually have a sighting of the Rays third baseman who last played in a regular-season game Sept. 5, 2016. He's supposed to return this season to a team in flux. They sure could use him. Prediction: He will have a solid career with the Rays.

Best bird on the move

Sarasota's Ed Smith Stadium might not be the coziest spring training stadium in the state, but go there and you might see the one team that has a decent chance of finishing lower in the standings than the Rays. According to Bovada betting odds, the over-under for the Rays victories this season is 77 1/2. The Orioles are at 73. Also, O's fans might want to go take one last look at Manny Machado before he eventually ends up in pinstripes.

Best place to see old neighbors

Port St. Lucie, home of the Mets, has a couple of local ties. New manager Mickey Callaway made his MLB debut with the Rays in 1999 and appeared in four games over two seasons with Tampa Bay. Meantime, new pitching coach Dave Eiland is from Zephryhills, played football briefly at Florida before transferring to USF to play baseball. He also spent part of three seasons pitching for the Rays. And, fun fact, he was Kevin Costner's body double in the 1999 film For Love of the Game. (A better-than-you-realize baseball movie that would have been better if John C. Reilly's character didn't look ridiculous wearing his cap away from the ballpark. But I digress.) Anyway, it's not super thrilling to go to a spring training game to watch guys manage and coach. So go check out one of the coolest rotations in baseball, which includes Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Matt Harvey.

New York Mets pitchers, from left, Zack Wheeler, Noah Syndergaard, Seth Lugo and Steven Matz throw at baseball spring training in Port St. Lucie. (AP Photo/Mike Fitzpatrick)

Best announcement

It's not spring training until you go to Dunedin and hear the public address announcer say, "Attention, ladies and gentlemen. There's a car in the parking lot with Ontario plates. Your car is locked and … your engine is running." Not only do you get that entertainment, but Dunedin is a really cool place to spend a March afternoon. Then again, what has happened to the Jays? It feels like their window to win a World Series has closed.

Best place to see the best

They call in Publix Field, but it will always be Joker Marchant Stadium. The Lakeland home of the Tigers is a great place to watch what might be the greatest right-handed hitter of his generation, Miguel Cabrera. Consider this: during a typical 162-game stretch, Cabrera hits .317 with 34 homers and 117 RBIs. That's like Hank Aaron-Frank Robinson stuff.

Best place to maybe run into Darth Vader

The Evil Empire is alive and well in Tampa as the Yankees have loaded up the Death Star and are prepared to vaporize the American League East. Aaron Judge and new addition Giancarlo Stanton combined for 111 homers last year, meaning you should be careful where you park you car at Steinbrenner Field. You might want to park in South Tampa and take an Uber. Anyway, those 111 homers were 17 fewer than the Giants hit all of last season.

Best place to see the best team in baseball

Hard to believe, but since 1979, only two teams have won back-to-back World Series. That would be the Blue Jays (1992-93) and the Yankees (1998-2000), but the Astros seemed poised to do it, no matter what anyone says about how good the Yankees are. So take a drive over to West Palm Beach and watch the best team in baseball. The Astros still have a scary-good lineup and their starting rotation is the best in baseball. They'll have a full season out of Justin Verlander and they added Pirates ace Gerrit Cole. Those two go along with Dallas Keuchel, Tampa's Lance McCullers Jr. and Charlie Morton. This team might not give up any runs.

Houston Astros pitcher Lance McCullers (43) throwing in the first inning of a game between the Astros and the Rays at Tropicana Field. (Times file)

Best last chance

Hop in your car and take the 200-mile driver over to West Palm Beach to watch the Nationals for two reasons. One, our old buddy and former Rays bench coach Davey Martinez is the new Nats skipper. It's your first chance to see him. But it might be your last chance to see Bryce Harper in a Washington uniform. The best player in baseball (at times) is a free agent after the season. Although, wait a year and you might be able to see him in Clearwater if the rumors are true that the Phillies are a leading candidate to get him.

Strangest sight

Don't drive, but fly out to Arizona. Sure, you could go see the Cubs or Dodgers. Or you can check out new Angels sensation Shohei Ohtani or the Indians, another under-the-radar team in the American League. But the reason to head west to the Cactus League is to see Evan Longoria in a Giants uniform. Still seems weird to say it, let alone see it. And while you're there, look to the outfield for another strange sight: Andrew McCutchen in a Giants uniform.

Three things that popped into my head

1. Remember when Boardwalk and Baseball amusement park in Haines City was supposed to be the chic baseball spot in Florida? Man, why didn't that work?

2. I miss spring training at Al Lang Stadium. Maybe the Cardinals and Mets — the two teams most associated with spring training in St. Pete — could play a couple of spring games there for old times' sake.

3. As great as spring training is, prices are still too high for exhibition games. Anything over $20 for games that don't count and have players you've never heard of playing half the game is obnoxious. Actually, come to think of it, anything over $10 is pushing it.