The Orioles celebrate 10 years at Ed Smith Stadium.
The air of baseball is as alive as ever at Ed Smith Stadium.
That may sound silly, but it's harder to achieve than it sounds. I have been to many a stadium where ostensibly there is baseball happening, but you would never know it from the atmosphere. People talk about themselves, not the game. A panoramic picture of these stadiums would be an indecipherable color from people wearing everyday clothes, not awash in the one or two primary colors of the teams that call these stadiums home.
Walk into Ed Smith on a Saturday, or even a Tuesday afternoon, and it still has the magic.
This spring training season is the Baltimore Orioles' 10th at the stadium. The team has become an institution in the area during that span. You could look to economics to tell that story if you want. According to Sarasota County's annual reports, the O's have generated more than $436 million in cumulative economic impact in Sarasota since 2015, the first year such data became available. That includes $76 million over the last reporting period.
The team also averages approximately 110,000 fans each spring training season, and the other way to measure long-lasting impact is to talk to such fans. So I did, at Saturday's home opener against the Boston Red Sox and Tuesday's split squad contest against the Tampa Bay Rays. The experience confirmed what I thought: The people of Sarasota love their O's.
People like Jesse Fearins, who was watching Saturday's game from the outfield pavilion, beer in hand. This year is Fearins' sixth as a spring training season ticket holder. Fearins is from Maryland, the Eastern Shore, and has loved the team all his life. He lives walking distance to Ed Smith, he said. Even if he didn't love baseball, it would be an unbeatable way to spend an afternoon.
"Oh, this stadium is wonderful," Fearins said. He has traveled to Bradenton to take in some Pittsburgh Pirates spring training games, he said, but they don't have the same feel.
Then there is Stanley and Barbara Ferber. During the regular season, the Ferbers are fans of the New York Mets, they said — but on Tuesday, they were decked head to toe in orange and black.
The Ed Smith experience is so good, it can even convert outsiders, at least for a month or two.
"You know what I love about it? The closeness," Barbara Ferber said. "When you go to the Mets' stadium (Citi Field) or Yankee Stadium, you sit so high up it's like you are watching from heaven. The players interact well with the fans here. It is a much closer relationship here. It is nice to see people who are professionals do their jobs and do them well. And it's a beautiful stadium, it is easy to spread out and feel comfortable."
Perhaps that is the ultimate testament to the power spring training, and Ed Smith, can have. It makes it easy for people to feel like part of the team. The magic I was referring to earlier, it's not magic at all. It's beer vendors who wear silly hats. It's the smell of peanuts and popcorn and grilled Italian sausage. It's the crispness of the white Orioles jerseys reflecting the sunlight. It's players like Trey Mancini and Richie Martin signing stuff for all the fans who ask. All of that combines for an experience you can only get at one place, for a limited time.
As I was walking up to the press box on Saturday, after taking pictures of the on-field pregame ceremonies, I heard two things. I heard the introduction of Orioles pitcher Wade LeBlanc and Red Sox hitter Marco Hernandez, and then I heard, from somewhere in the crowd, a booming voice yell "Strike this joker out!"
Spring training. You can't beat it.