Maybe the Orioles’ problem these last dozen years or so has to do with the same old spring training regimen year after year in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Perhaps some fresh scenery in a new city will provide that shot of winning karma the team so desperately needs. (And maybe Cal Ripken will come out of retirement to bash 40 home runs, too.)
At the very least, the move to Sarasota’s Ed Smith Stadium means frustrated O’s fans have a new city to explore— one with a great mix of cultural, culinary and recreational activities and more than a few similarities to Baltimore.
Culture vultures’ first stop should be the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art (941-359-5700, ringling.org). Like Baltimore’s William and Henry Walters, circus magnate John Ringling combed the world for artistic masterpieces. In 1931 he built a museum with 21 galleries in which to display works by Rubens, van Dyck, El Greco and hundreds of others.
To see how the Ringlings lived, stop by the couple’s sprawling mansion, Ca d’Zan, on the museum grounds. The 36,000-square-foot Venetian Gothic terra-cotta manse with 41 rooms and 15 bathrooms looks as if Don Corleone and Louis XIV teamed up on the design. Mable Ringling had a thing for roses, and visitors can wander her 22,000-square-foot rose garden out back.
Also on the premises is the Ringling Circus Museum, a trove of memorabilia and artifacts documenting the history of Ringling Bros. and “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Note John and Mable’s over-the-top private rail car, the Wisconsin, in which they traveled the country in luxury.
Like Baltimore’s National Aquarium, the Mote Marine Laboratory (941-388-4441, mote.org) offers live dolphin shows and a shark tank, but also features indigenous manatees and rays for petting.
A short drive away lays the Sarasota Jungle Gardens (sarasotajunglegardens.com), an old-time Florida attraction comprised of “jungle” pathways and dozens of tropical birds, alligators and other South Florida critters. The highlight here is a free-range flock of pink flamingos, which visitors can feed by hand. Check also for daily performances by Frosty, the aging cockatoo who’s been riding a unicycle for audiences since his days on the “Ed Sullivan Show.”
Like Baltimore, seafood dominates menus in these parts. But the crabs are stone crabs. (You eat only their claws, usually served cold, with a little cocktail sauce or mustard.) The old-school, Obrycki’s equivalent here is Moore’s, an institution on nearby Longboat Key. It may look like a seafood packing house from the outside, but its open-air, bayside tables make for a perfect crab-cracking setting (941-383-1748, stonecrab.cc).
Siesta Key, an 8-mile-long barrier island just south of downtown, has its share of rollicking crab and oyster bars, including Captain Curt’s, whose clam chowder scored first prize at last year’s International Chowder Championships (941-349 3885, captaincurts.com).
If you prefer white linen on your tables instead of brown paper, try Aqua, one of the area’s hot new seafood restaurants (941-918-8041, aqua576.com). It has great views of Sarasota Bay from its third-floor dining room and sublime caramelized sea scallops with Moroccan couscous.
You’re in Florida, aren’t you? Hit the beach. Stephen “Dr. Beach” Leatherman, a coastal researcher at Florida International University, ranked the white quartz sands of Siesta Key the second best in the nation in 2009. Incredibly, the powdery sand stays cool to the touch even in summer.
If shopping is your pleasure, head to St. Armands Circle (starmandscircleassoc.com), a tony enclave of 130 stores (mostly independent) and restaurants, located on St. Armands Key, a short drive from downtown. That busy eatery spilling out onto the sidewalk is the Columbia Restaurant, (941-388-3987, columbiarestaurant.com), which has been serving Spanish food in Sarasota since 1959. You won’t find Natty Boh on its menu, but you can find fantastic sangria, made tableside— a wonderful drink with which to toast an Orioles’ win. Or, alas, mourn another loss.
AirTran Airlines offers nonstop and connecting flights from BWI Airport to Sarasota. Southwest flies direct to Tampa Bay, about an hour’s drive away. The Orioles provide a list of hotels near the stadium and offer several travel packages, including air, hotel, rental car and tickets at baltimore.orioles.mlb.com/ spring_training. For info on Sarasota tourism: 800-800-3906, sarasotafl.org.