CLEARWATER - As fans file into Bright House Networks Field for Phillies spring games, they will enter a state-of-the-art facility the city and team hope will become as much of a treasure as the area's white sandy beaches.
The $30-million ballpark at 601 Old Coachman Road, which debuts today by hosting the Yankees, offers a whole new ballgame to Philadelphia fans who flock to Clearwater to watch the Phillies in their home away from home.
Patrons will have all the luxuries that accompany modern stadiums. Seats are equipped with cup holders and angled toward home plate. The concession stand faces the diamond, part of the design touches that bring spectators closer to the game.
In addition, there are elevated bullpens, luxury suites, a tiki bar and tiered picnic areas overlooking the outfield, amenities that Jack Russell Stadium never had.
"We're excited about what we're building here, and we really believe that this is the next generation of spring training facilities," Phillies director of Florida operations John Timberlake said during a naming rights ceremony in December.
About the only glitch is parking. Though Bright House Networks Field features triple the parking available at Jack Russell, traffic could be a headache, with many of the roads leading to the stadium riddled with construction. The projects are dominated by the U.S. 19 overpass being built at Drew Street.
Most fans will have to find spots in the 1,200-space lot at Joe DiMaggio Field, an expansive dirt lot at Drew Street and Old Coachman Road. There are two ways to enter: from Old Coachman Road, or from westbound Drew Street.
Fans also can head to the Carpenter Field lot, a 300-space area off Old Coachman Road.
"We're stressing patience," said Lt. James Steffens, special operations commander for the Phillies. "U.S. 19 is going to be a mess, especially after the games with rush hour."
The Phillies will host 15 games this spring. Prices are $16 for field box seats, $18 for premium box seats and $24 for club seats. For fans looking for a different perspective, outfield seating for about 1,500 will be available on a raised grass berm. Those seats cost $8.
Once spring training ends, fans in Philadelphia will get to see the unveiling of Citizens Bank Park, a 43,000-seat stadium with a panoramic view of the skyline. That stadium opens April 12.
"If you were planning this, you probably wouldn't open two facilities in the same year," Phillies president David Montgomery said in December. "I think the people that really feel good about that are the people in charge of (the Bright House Networks Field) project. We have been blessed to have a partnership with the city of Clearwater for well over 55 years and this really is an exclamation point."
With the new digs in place, Montgomery and general manager Ed Wade are eyeing the finish line rather than the bottom line.
Last season, the Phillies started putting the pieces together to build a contender. They took an advance on the revenue that will come with the opening of the new stadium and acquired free agent Jim Thome and traded for former Braves pitcher Kevin Millwood.
Both moves paid off handsomely. Thome led the team with 47 home runs and 131 RBIs. Millwood went 14-12 and pitched a perfect game. The Phillies continued to bolster their roster this offseason with the addition of closer Billy Wagner and pitcher Eric Milton,
"When the organization started the ballpark projects, they set a specific start and end date," Wade said in December. "On the baseball side, we have plans, too, but sometimes things get in the way of telling us exactly when we'll be able to come to a completion. Over the last couple of years we have gotten very close to where we want to be and we're continuing with that process."