I don’t remember which year I first attended spring training, but I remember the exact date when I decided I would never miss it again: February 28th, 2014. I remember that date because we all remember the winter of 2013-14, or as Minnesotan’s refer to it: “that really awful winter.”
That doesn’t sound especially harsh, but when Minnesotans single out one winter as really awful, that’s high praise. They’re all really awful. But 2013-14 had the coldest average temperature of any winter since 1978, plus a ton of snow. It also saved the worst for last. February, which is when Minnesotans are desperately searching for a little hope, was an all-time crummy month.
When I boarded the plane at MSP that day, I looked at my phone and it was -10 degrees Fahrenheit, which is 42 degrees below the average high for that day. And when I landed in Fort Myers it was 80 and sunny and I was thunderstruck by just how dumb I had been for the previous 47 years of my life.
I’ve come to feel strongly that we’re all doing it wrong. We should all escape for at least a long weekend to Fort Myers. And since I also get dozens of people asking me for advice for spring training, I hope this story serves as both a guide and inspiration to plan your own escape.
I’ve already covered the weather, but it’s worth pointing out that even if there wasn’t baseball, escaping to 80 and sunny isn’t just nice for the time you’re there, it also lessens the rage with which you shovel out the driveway after that DAMN SNOWPLOW guys comes by AGAIN. It’s the length of the Minnesota winter that is the real killer. Knowing your winter has a definitive break, even temporarily, is incredibly therapeutic.
That is all true if there wasn’t baseball. But here’s the thing - there IS baseball. It is probably the most concentrated and accessible baseball you’ll ever experience.
Visiting the CenturyLink Sports Complex
Visiting the Twins complex to see players up close is a morning activity. The accessibility is highest in the morning when players walk to and from their practice fields. You can see the route below, but the best place to stake out is over in the concrete area by those columns on the right. That’s where you’ll see a lot of people hanging around by 10 AM or so.
The players go out and come back in shifts, usually starting 9:15 or so though sometimes later. They come back in around 11 or noon, and that’s the best time to shake their hands or get an autograph or picture. You have to be patient and you get what you get - the times vary, the players vary, it’s a loosely organized congenial activity. Sometimes they can’t or won’t stop, but often they do. Here are Stephen Gonsalves, Kyle Gibson and Jose Berrios in 2019 all giving autographs as they came back from their morning workouts Saturday morning.
Scrumming up with other fans and rubbing elbows with the players is certainly a draw, but it’s also fun to watch the players practice their craft. Want to watch a practice session, including someone like Tom Kelly or Torii Hunter help instruct minor leaguers? You can do that. They even built stands:
Or want to watch players take batting practice? The batting cages are right here, and you can watch up close through that chain link fence upon which these banners hang.
The same is true of throwing in the bullpen. Here we see La Tortuga waiting for some pitchers to report and work on some of their mechanics.
You don’t have to worry about parking on days where there aren’t games. The stadium doesn’t have any concessions, but most of the action is over by lunchtime, so you have your afternoons free to bake on a beach, if you like.
Any Twins prospect who is on the 40-man roster is with the big league team at the beginning of spring training. And may who are not are still invited as non-roster invitees, so check the spring training roster to see which of your favorite players are with the big league club.
But if you are really into prospects, you’ll want to attend spring training starting the second week of March. That’s when the minor league camp starts up, so all of the fields are filled with top prospects and hopeful suspects doing drills and playing games. This includes many of the prospects that began spring training with the big club. When they are whittled off the roster, they move to the minor league complex.
If you would like to know which prospects are working out at which level, stop by the minor league office. They have sheets that say which players are working out with which teams, (AA, AAA, etc.) and also the minor league game schedule.
And then the games start. Starting the last weekend of February, you will have real live baseball most days from 1:00 to 4:00 PM. There are games most every day, in more intimate minor league stadiums, with prices that are closer to the minors than the majors.
Plus, if the Twins aren’t home, Fort Myers is one of the few cities that hosts two minor league teams: the Red Sox park is just a handful of miles away. Or take a one-hour to three-hour road trip to follow the Twins. All the road games are no further than that.
When To Visit
Once per day at spring training, you’ll hear a player, Twins employees or media members ask out loud “What the hell day is it today?” The daily routine doesn’t vary much, meaning Tuesdays are the same as Thursdays are the same as Saturdays.
That said, you may want to visit at different times during spring training depending on what you want to get out of it.
If you want the best access to players, the time to come is before the games start. Pitchers and catchers start their workouts on a Wednesday. The following Monday the batters all need to be there for their workouts, but the truth is most are there several days earlier. Excitement is high, and the players are feeling fresh. The interaction is definitely higher early in spring training.
If you want to see games, you have a choice. If you want to see the big names, visit at the end of March when most of the roster cuts have happened. The players who will be making the roster will be getting some extra innings, though they’ll still likely be pulled after two or three at-bats.
If you want to see some top prospects, come early in the game schedule, when Twins coaches will go out of their way to make sure top players get a live-action look for their benefit. You can see some of these guys in later games, too, but it will be more hit-and-miss, and usually limited to late innings. Early in the schedule you might see them starting alongside Twins regulars.
Quit Thinking About It and Do It
For a baseball fan, it’s almost hard to believe a place like this exists. The bad news is that it probably won’t, not in exactly the same manner, even next year. The consensus opinion is that every year, all the amenities get a little nicer, but the access gets a little tighter.
If that idea bothers you, I promise you - you won’t care. Find a way to get here. You’ll hear the pop of a mitt and feel the sun on your shoulders and you’ll wonder, like I did, why it took you so long.