The first stadium that I can remember visiting for a Spring Training game was Winter Haven's Chain of Lakes Park. That was in 1989 on a family vacation and despite seeing many spring games since, I had never returned to where my initial Spring Training trip began. The biggest change that affected my return visit came when my beloved Red Sox, who trained here from 1966 through 1992, moved to Ft. Myers, and I didn't have a strong reason to return.
With that in mind I was in for a pleasant surprise on my return trip 13 years later. The stadium looks great, still painted in the red and blue that I remembered, only this time the colors represented the tenant of the previous nine seasons, the Cleveland Indians.
Winter Haven must be proud of "their" Indians. I saw as much signage welcoming the team in Winter Haven at businesses and on hanging banner street signs as I've ever seen in Florida. Even the city's water tower has the Indians' Chief Wahoo logo painted on both sides.
The quaint and charming Chain of Lakes Park got its name from the surrounding lakes and is built on the shores of Lake Lulu, which is visible from the top seats of the first base grandstand and right field bleachers (the water tower is visible from anywhere in the stadium).
Among the first things you'll noticed about Chain of Lakes is that it is dug into the side of a manmade hill, one of two ballparks in Florida to make use of the feature (Kissimmee is the other).
There are two main entrances to the ballpark. The one you approach first is next to the ticket booth down the left field line, which most fans access and requires waiting in line to be admitted. The wise fan skips the initial entrance and makes his way to the other entrance, which is located behind home plate, where there are as many ticket takers as there are fans filing through the gates (not much of either).
If you make your entrance from the home plate area, you walk up an incline to behold the site of twin rotundas, which serve as bathrooms. Maneuvering beyond the necessary facilities, you find yourself in the fully covered grandstand section, which spans from first to third base. The grandstand roof is supported by a series of red pillars, which might obstruct the view of a few patrons, but gives the ballpark a throwback quality that isn't readily found at other spring training stadiums in Florida.
In my previous visit the covered grandstand was the only seating available. Since then, large metal bleacher sections have been added extending down each of the foul lines, while berm seating is offered in left-center and there are more metal bleachers in left field, giving Chain of Lakes Park the fullest range of seating available at any Spring Training stadium I've seen.
The only area of the stadium without seating extends from center to right field, where an apartment complex runs behind the outfield wall, giving the ballpark a fully enclosed feel. Furthermore, the apartment complex has a pool that sits within 100 yards of the right-field fence and was packed with residents on lawn chairs facing the game action, possibly catching some rays while watch the game for free (besides rent).
Besides being the only Florida stadium I've seen to offer bleacher seating in the outfield, Chain of Lakes Park had a unique feature that I've yet to encounter at this level. Since the field is below ground level, fans buying tickets to sit in the outfield have the option of watching the game while standing directly behind the outfield fence, which doubles as a cup holder for those that choose to use it as such.
From this perspective, fans get an outfielder's view of the action. Although the area wasn't designed to offer the same vantage point that exists in right field at Baltimore's Camden Yards, it accomplishes the same goal.
Although you can't get to the outfield bleacher and berm seating from the rest of the stadium, they are accessible through their own gate in left field. You simply exit through the third base grandstand entrance, get your hand stamped, exit the stadium, and head through the parking lot towards the left field entrance, where your hand is checked for clearance.
Just before getting your hand stamped to leave, you'll notice the left field concession concourse that features the only funnel cake stand I've seen during Spring Training. And while your walking around the stadium you'll notice the minor league game going on at the adjacent field behind Chain of Lakes Park. These are just a few more of the friendly features that make for a pleasant day at the ballpark
About the only drawback to Winter Haven is actually getting to it. It's located approximately 10 miles south of the Interstate and the highway that leads to the stadium is a maze of twists and turns through Winter Haven and nearby Lake Alfred. If you don't pay attention you'll probably get lost.
And then there's still the question as to how long the Indians will remain in Winter Haven.
They ended up here by mistake after their almost completed, brand new spring training facility in Homestead (40 miles south of Miami) was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. The most expensive natural disaster in the history of the United States left the Indians scrambling for a spring home when Spring Training rolled around in 1993. The Indians picked Winter Haven, recently vacated by the Red Sox, and signed a 10-year lease after their first exhibition season. That lease runs out after 2003. For whatever reasons, the team is shopping for new digs, or as a Tribe spokesman put it, "exploring other opportunities to meet our changing baseball operations and business development needs."
If the Tribe bolt this charming, quaint ballpark built on the shores of Lake Lulu it wouldn't be the first time the team has left a Florida city without a tenant. Although Homestead recovered from Hurricane Andrew and rebuilt their baseball complex in 1993, the facility hasn't been able to attract a team since the Indians reneged on their contract.
If the Indians do leave, Winter Haven will have no professional baseball to offer, as there is no minor league tenant that uses the field when the Tribe head north.
It remains to be seen whether Winter Haven will continue to serve as a winter heaven for a Major League team in the foreseeable future. While I can understand why the Royals and Rangers are leaving Baseball City and Port Charlotte for Arizona, a move by the Tribe doesn't make much since in this town smitten by their association with the Indians.
Available for $4 next to the stadium, but you can avoid the traffic and monetary sum by parking on the opposite side of the street where the Chain of Lakes Complex resides. We parked in the back of the shopping center parking lot located behind the Fazoli's Restaurant. Apparently, this is the preferred method of parking for many. Hot dog and souvenir stands are set up within earshot of the free lot to handle the foot traffic.