After catching a foul ball in Lakeland on Wednesday, there really was only one move left for me on this trip around the Grapefruit League.
I’m going to Disney World.
- Officially licensed by the MLB
- Officially licensed by the MLB
No, I’m not hanging out with Mickey Mouse and the gang. No, I’m not trying to scare children. I’m here to check out the Atlanta Braves spring training home at Champion Stadium, located just outside Orlando at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.
Right down the road from the Magic Kingdom and Epcot Center, this complex sits on 220 acres and is packed with lush, green fields of all sports. The AAU Volleyball championships are held here, and more than 60 sports are offered for athletes of all ages. Several high school baseball, softball and lacrosse teams were actively playing, and several other players were on the berm during the Braves 5-5 tie with the Miami Marlins on Thursday.
As you can imagine, parking is a beast. And I couldn’t find a scalper until I got in a long ticket line. Once I found a scalper — a woman in her 60s trying to give away an extra ticket — she was brisked away by security. Just like Boston’s Jetblue Park, scalpers are not allowed near the stadium to sell their tickets.
I landed bleacher seats down the first-base line and still had a great sightline. There’s a huge scoreboard in the outfield, very little shade in the two decks around the infield and a Mickey Mouse design cut into the center-field grass.
It was a somber day in the stands for Braves fans as Chipper Jones announced that this is his last season. They played his press conference and he touched on the magic of playing in Atlanta for a team that’s always on television and always in the World Series hunt.
I’d catch a few Braves games as a kid on TBS when the team wasn’t very good. I remember some bad Atlanta teams with Dale Murphy, Rick Mahler, Gerald Perry and Ozzie Virgil. Then Bobby Cox showed up, Sid Bream had that big slide into home plate and new stars like Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones arrived.
It was nice to finely see a live Braves game. I even have Brandon Beachy on my fantasy baseball team, although he got shelled Thursday.
There were three things that surprised me about the park.
One is that none of the baseballs retrieved by the ball boys were given away to the young fans in the stands. This is the only stadium I’ve seen so far that isn’t giving baseballs away. I thought Disney World, of all places, would be giving them away.
The second is the beer. Champion Stadium is a haven for beer drinkers. Buy a draft beer in a souvenir cup for $7 and you get refills at $3.50 for the rest of the game. Then comes the sixth inning special, where Natural Lights, Miller High Life and Pabst Blue Ribbon 16 ouncers are offered for $3. PBR me ASAP!
The third surprise is they let Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen into Disney World. I thought the possible fireworks were saved for Magic Kingdom at night.
- The marketing of this exhibition game was solid — and I wouldn’t expect anything less with ESPN’s brand all over there place. When a foul ball entered the stands, you’d hear audio clips like “Mine! Mine! Mine! Mine!” If it cleared the stands, you here the sound of cracked windows or a splash. When Jose Reyes was caught trying to steal, Elvis Presley’s “Return to Sender” was played. They also played that classic ABC Wide World of Sports theme, along with Disney Radio between innings. Good times.
- I can’t get “It’s a Small World After All” out of my head.
- I like the flashbacks I get when I see these old base coaches. After seeing Juan Samuel with the Phillies the other day, today I saw Terry Pendleton with the Braves and Gary Thurman with the Marlins. I remember Thurman when he had a cup of coffee with the Tigers in 1993.
- Donald Duck escorted a fella out for the ceremonial first pitch while an old-school brass band played the National Anthem and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
- This place is completely G-rated. There are no colorful vendors, just girls with ergonomically correct tubs of cold water, soda pops and beer. Maybe this soft setting for spring training was the reason Atlanta faltered down the stretch last season.
- I can’t help but imagine what Ty Cobb would think if he had to play an exhibition game here.
- Some Braves fans got “The Chop” going out here in right field.
- During the seventh-inning stretch, a few Cubs fans yelled “Root, root, root for the Cub-bies.” Cubs fans are so cute. And so are old people when they realize they are on the Kiss Cam.
- Took in an Orlando Magic game late Wednesday night after a game in Lakeland. It was fun to change up the pace and watch former high school classmate Jason Richardson play. While the Magic won the game over the Phoenix Suns, Richardson failed to score a point.