More than baseball on the menu for spring training

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Florida Spring Training

A young Baltimore Orioles fan plays with a oversized Orioles bobblehead during a spring training game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Ed Smith Stadium. (Derick Hingle, USA TODAY Sports / March 1, 2013)

There was a time when I would have considered a trip to a baseball park without a visit to the hot-dog stand as something close to sacrilege.

That was before the crab-cake sandwiches entered the picture.

At Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, spring training home of the Baltimore Orioles (orioles.com), traditional fare has plenty of competition from a menu board loaded with Maryland-style seafood items: grilled salmon sandwiches ($8), soft-shell crab sandwiches ($9), grouper bites ($8), Maryland crab soup ($5) and the aforementioned crab-cake sandwiches ($10).

With all those choices, it's understandable that I never made room for my annual ball-park dog. I eased my guilt by making it to the stand selling more than a dozen international beers, ciders and ales — an upgrade from my usual draft beer.

I've been skipping out on various responsibilities for Major League spring training games in Florida's Grapefruit League since the early 1980s. In recent years, the number of March games in Florida has dwindled, with a few teams moving their spring operations to the Cactus League in Arizona and Nevada.

In addition to Sarasota, there are teams in Lake Buena Vista (Atlanta Braves), Viera (Washington Nationals), Kissimmee (Houston Astros), Dunedin (Toronto Blue Jays), Bradenton (Pittsburgh Pirates), Clearwater (Philadelphia Phillies), Port St. Lucie (New York Mets), Tampa (New York Yankees), Lakeland (Detroit Tigers), Port Charlotte (Tampa Bay Rays), Fort Myers (Boston Red Sox/Minnesota Twins) and Jupiter (St. Louis Cardinals/Miami Marlins).

The good news is that most remaining clubs are based in high-end homes with multiple practice fields, shiny new stadiums and amenities for players and fans. In Sarasota, the Orioles' home reflects a $31 million renovation in 2011.

Reserved grandstand seats ($18) are close to the infield and it's possible to get within conversational distance of the players in both bullpens. The Oriole Bird mascot wanders through the crowd and is willing to pose for pictures, even with guys old enough to know better.

There's an enclosed second-floor bar and a left-field pavilion features spots at reserved tables close to the outfield fence ($16). Somehow, it's hard to remember that they used to call these the cheap seats.

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