Spring Fever

By Carlton Reese

When it comes to sports, the state of Florida owns the month of March

An azure sky filtering the soft rays that fuel autotrophs and bathe a populace in its warm suffusion – such is the sketch of daily life Floridians take for granted during the temperate month of March, but much heeded by multitudes of sports organizations in search of a spring paradise. Yes, if the calendar reads March and one happens to be a sports enthusiast, then one is ultimately fixated on the Sunshine State.

Major League Baseball teams have been aware of this fact for over 100 years, making Florida its spring home ever since the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians trained in Tampa and Pensacola, respectively, back in 1913. As such, the crack of wooden bats and the popping of leather mitts have become fixtures of the state’s March soundscape since long before revelling spring breakers or Harley riders ever thought to descend here on their annual furloughs.

The NCAA Tournament, college basketball’s showcase event, brings its show to Florida most every March, and even at that, holds only a fraction of the state’s attention.

But for 2022, March may seem to take a bit of a swipe on the chin in Florida as the NCAA will not be coming here (places like Dayton and Buffalo seem more attractive?) and MLB players and owners may be too busy squabbling over their golden goose to make it here for Spring Training. Still, with no NCAA Tournament and a possible MLB lockout/strike/greedfest casting a pall over Florida’s month of distinction, this is still the place to be for sports fans.

As March signals the official beginning of when it is okay to start drinking frozen rum runners, it also signals the arrival of the PGA Tour. The Arnold Palmer Invitational, played in Orlando at the Bay Hill Club and Lodge March 1-6, presents local golf fans with the closest opportunity to trod next to many of the biggest stars of the sport. If healthy, defending champion Bryson DeChambeau has said he will return to Bay Hill in an effort to win back-to-back titles.

Bay Hill marks the second stage in a four-week PGA Tour jaunt of Florida that actually starts the last week of February at the Honda Classic in West Palm Beach. The weekend after the Orlando event is The Players Championship at the famed TPC-Sawgrass near Jacksonville. A fan favorite that boasts a $20 million purse, The Players has long been considered an unofficial major championship and some even consider it to be a “fifth major.” 

The final stop on the Florida swing is down in Palm Harbor north of Tampa at the Innisbrook Resort’s Copperhead Course for the Valspar Championship.

Although the preferred option for Florida sports fans in March would normally be the donning of a tee shirt while sipping a cold beer in grandstands of Dunedin’s TD Ballpark or Tampa’s Steinbrenner Field, nursing a light lager adjacent to the 16th fairway at Sawgrass presents a nice alternative.

With the NCAA Tournament eschewing Florida, the Southeastern Conference is stepping in to fill part of that void by holding its men’s basketball tournament championship in Tampa March 9-13.

Baseball, basketball and golf have always been March stalwarts in Florida, but the state also brings in professional tennis, world class equestrian (see OM’s story on the Live Oak International in this issue), professional drag racing, charity cycling and for 2022 the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team.

Even horse racing, forever seemingly dormant in March for Florida, has become a rather big deal. The Tampa Bay Derby, once a race hardly anyone would plan a weekend around, has quickly grown into an event of stout proportion. The March 12 race at Tampa Bay Downs is one in a string of Kentucky Derby prep races as part of the Kentucky Derby Championship Series.

For much of its history, horses competing in the Tampa Bay Derby enjoyed rather nondescript careers, but that cannot be stated these days. The growing stature of the event has helped it churn out talent fit for the big time. In 2007, Tampa Bay Derby runner-up Street Sense went on to win the Kentucky Derby. 2010 third-place finisher Super Saver, trained by Todd Pletcher, went on to win the Derby. Pletcher’s Tapwrite won the Tampa Bay Derby in 2018 then went on to win the Belmont Stakes.

Most recently, in 2019, Tacitus won the Tampa Bay Derby in a record time of 1:41.9 then placed in both the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes.

As part of the Kentucky Derby Championship Series, the Tampa Bay Derby offers 85 Derby qualification points, divided on a 50-20-10-5 basis. Not a bad way to spend a Saturday in March.

For tennis enthusiasts, the drive to South Florida is rather short when it is to witness one of the top events outside of the major championships. The Miami Open, March 21-April 3, features the top players on both men’s and women’s circuits and is played at Hard Rock Stadium. Those familiar with the name will note that this is a football stadium that converts into tennis for this tournament.

For those who can’t get enough of that burning fuel smell and deafening engine roar, the NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville March 10-13 should satisfy those cravings. The drag racing calendar’s first east coast event, the Gatornationals boasts of being the site for some historical runs, including the first 300-mph pass in 1986 by Belleview’s “Big Daddy” Don Garlits.

Gatornationals has been held annually since 1970, making it the fourth-oldest professional drag racing event on the NHRA circuit.

In soccer, it doesn’t get any bigger than the FIFA World Cup, and the U.S. Men’s National Team will pin its qualifying hopes on a match in Orlando March 27. The Americans will battle Panama in a World Cup qualifying match at Exploria Stadium. After a humbling 2018 in which the U.S. failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in eight tries, this year’s contingent stands in good position (5-3-2 over the first 10 qualifying matches). But a weak finish could make things difficult. Keep in mind, Panama already defeated the U.S. back in October.

Finally, for those who prefer to compete as opposed to merely spectate, the sport of cycling offers that chance and March is the best time in Florida for such an endeavor. Close by are three charity cycling events that present challenges for the experienced riders and fun for the newbies.

On March 5, riders can either head to Gainesville for the Tour de Gainesville or Orlando’s Championsgate Resort for the Bike MS: The Citrus Tour. On March 26-27, riders can head to either Fort Myers or Tampa for a myriad of lengths of races with the Pan Florida Challenge Cancer Ride.

It’s not too hot; it’s not too cold. In Florida, it’s just right – one look at an overstuffed sports calendar is all the evidence you need.  

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