This past Saturday at 11 AM, I left Boston for sunny Tampa Bay. This wasn't a random trip to the South, nor was it designed with fun in the sun in mind. This was my first trip to Clearwater, spring training home of the Philadelphia Phillies, and I was there to watch some baseball.
The elite traveling crew consisted of my father and younger brother, both of whom were making their initial pilgrimage as well. And, of course, family relations got off to a great start when my dad spent 20 minutes making fun of numerous holes in my beat-up plaid shorts. I was under the impression that "vacation wear" covered everything up to and (maybe) including hardcore nudity, but perhaps standards are higher in Florida. Tom Cimino's are, at least.
Our temporary home was the Days Inn Clearwater Beach, featuring a prison cell-sized room that was somehow meant to house two mid-20-year-olds and a 50-year-old for four days. And to add insult to injury, they initially denied our request to add a cot to the two-bed room. Luckily, the manager was a charming and helpful young man, although he may have also been a serial killer. He was very quiet and a little too pleasant, with a faraway look in his eyes that suggested constant consideration of how he'd kill all of us.
We ate at a bunch of renowned spring training haunts. Lenny's for breakfast. Whiskey Joe's for lunch. The Palm Pavilion for dinner. All were varying levels of wonderful, with Palm Pavilion being my favorite. You don't know delicious until you've followed up shrimp and crab chowder with "boneless chicken breast stuffed with bacon and cheddar Jack cheese, placed atop a big bowl of black beans and rice and finished off with pico de gallo, salsa and more cheese."
Bright House Field is, as everyone says, a gorgeous park. A tiki bar in left field is packed from an hour before the game to two hours after; it probably pays Cliff Lee's salary singlehandedly. The food is decent, and there are Phillies apparel as far as the eye can see. I received more than a few compliments for my Mike Schmidt mustache shirt.
Plus, it's not that expensive! The same beer stand sold 16 oz. Bud Light bottles and 24 oz. Victory drafts for the exact same price; don't ask me why almost everyone chose the former. But everywhere you went, the most touristy-looking places ended up being reasonably priced and relatively delicious.
And oh yeah, baseball. As expected, CC Sabathia outdueled Joe "Cowboy" Blanton on Sunday, but Roy Halladay showed young gun Jon Lester how it's done on Monday. And the offense…well, the lineup they're trotting out there won't scare many teams. But Jimmy Rollins looked healthy (even high-fived a shirtless guy in shallow left field!) and Raul Ibanez's beard has transformed him into an even more handsome and confident man.
Also, keep an eye on Josh Barfield, one of the relatively ignored competitors for the second base job. He drove in a few runs on Monday and even played a few innings in center field. I'd rather take a flier on him as a reclamation project than roll with 100% washed-up losers like Delwyn Young and Pete Orr (although Orr has spawned an awesome Twitter feed.)
All in all, Clearwater is a magical place. Whether you're traveling with friends, bringing a lady for a romantic weekend or spending 90 hours eating, drinking and baseballing with your family members, it's a trip you won't regret. Just make sure any holes in your shorts are all sewn up.