By Nick Rynes
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
SARASOTA, Fla. – The trek to the gulf coast of Florida is a yearly tradition for many fans to get a first glimpse of the Orioles in spring exhibition games.
The Orioles play in games against about half of the league across Florida, while the other half of the league plays in Arizona for the spring before heading back home for the regular season. The warm weather and small stadiums are a huge draw to many fans this time of year.
Baltimore native Bonnie Pugh and her teenage son, David Bolling, made their first trip to spring training this year.
“The closeness and the temperature and the atmosphere is all just so neat,” Bolling said.
Pugh grew up in Baltimore going to games at Memorial Stadium and Camden Yards. She just recently moved to Florida after living in Maryland for over 20 years.
“This is my first training game and I love it, I love the intimacy of it,” Pugh said.
The Orioles’ presence in Sarasota has a massive impact on the local economy. According to a fact sheet put out by the Orioles, Ed Smith Stadium has brought in 765,000 fans in the seven years the Orioles have played there. The Orioles also have an $89 million impact annually on the entire state of Florida, according to a 2016 Sarasota County government report.
Unlike Pugh and Bolling, many of the fans in the crowd are retired. While some of those who were interviewed said they moved to Florida for the nice weather, the annual spring training tradition has become an added bonus.
Christian Young, an usher at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, lived in Baltimore for 74 years before moving to Florida. Young has been an Orioles fan since the current team was formed in 1954.
“Everybody is enjoying themselves down here and it’s a great way to retire,” Young said. “The restaurants, the beaches, the weather, everything is great.”
Kim Miller and Vickie Yanics lived in Pigtown before moving to Sarasota in 2005. The season ticketholders have been watching the Orioles in spring training games ever since.
“When the pitchers and catchers report, we come down and watch them on the practice fields, that’s what I like the most,” Miller said. “It’s also neat to see some of the players around town in local restaurants.”
“Because we are season ticket holders, [The Orioles] also throw a nice cookout for us every year,” Yanics said. “They even bring the players out to sign autographs for it.”
Throughout the crowds that flock to Sarasota every spring, there are a few that have taken spectating to a new level.
Jerry and Pat Kalista of Forest Hill have attended baseball games at every major-league baseball stadium and now have a new goal of seeing every spring training ballpark.
Jerry Kalista has been a baseball coach for numerous teams in the Baltimore area. He said the spring training experience helps him become a better coach.
“I want to see what they do and how they do different drills so I can take that back with me to use some of it as a coach,” Kalista said. “It’s also pretty cool how close you can get to the players — like I shook hands with Adam Jones today.”
The trip to spring training is not always completely about baseball. Families like the Benjes’ have been coming down the last few years to see their family as well.
Andy Benjes of Bel Air has been coming down to spring training with his father and brother, Chris and Bill, for the last four years. They also get a chance to see their grandparents who moved to Sarasota 17 years ago.
“It’s nice to be able to come down and be with my family while also enjoying some baseball,” Benjes said. “You grew with the Orioles and grew up with baseball, it’s really neat to be able to enjoy the whole experience with your family.”
The Orioles, who are currently 7-5-1 in spring training, will remain in sunny Sarasota until returning north for the beginning of the regular season on April 3.
“The best thing about it is being able to see baseball early before the season starts,” Chris Benjes said. “When it’s warm down here and it’s still cold back home.”
Cover photo is of Christian Young, an usher at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, who lived in Baltimore for 74 years before moving to Florida. Photo taken by Nick Rynes.