LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The fields are immaculate, the clubhouse is spacious and the All-Star Cafe is buzzing.
Welcome to spring training, Mickey-style.
Just outside the front gates of Disney World is the Atlanta Braves' new home, on 200 acres that was nothing but scrub brush four years ago. Besides a spring training base, the complex features a fieldhouse, soccer fields, tennis courts and football fields, and is home to the AAU, the Harlem Globetrotters and the Cincinnati Bengals mini-camp.
Already, the complex has hosted World Team Tennis, the NFL Quarterback Challenge, the U.S. Men's Clay Court Championship, the ABL All-Star Game and the Pro Beach Volleyball tour.
All that and an All-Star Cafe within pop-fly distance from the Braves clubhouse too. Hailed by general manager John Schuerholz as the finest spring training facility in the world, it's difficult to find anyone who would disagree.
Contrasted with the aged, crumbling facility the Braves had called home in West Palm Beach since 1963, their new residence is a palace. When pitchers and catchers report to camp today, they will find a 7,500-seat stadium, four practice fields, eight indoor batting tunnels, a separate field just for infield practice, plus an enormous weight room and four whirlpools in the clubhouse.
There's nothing like Disney magic, plus $100 million or so, to create a spectacular complex.
"There's just no other facility like this," said stadium manager Murray Cook, who managed the West Palm Beach facility for nine years. "I came here just to be a part of this. It's an incredible place for baseball. We wanted to make it as guest friendly as possible. We wanted to give it a major league stadium atmosphere."
The marriage between Disney and the Braves is well on its way to being a resounding success. Ticket sales are hot and already all lower deck reserved seats are sold out for the 15-game Grapefruit League schedule. Although no game is yet a sellout, only lawn seating remains for a handful of games.
"We wanted a first-class facility for our fans and that's what we have," said Bill Squires, manager of facilities for Walt Disney World Sports. "People can come watch a game and then head to the Magic Kingdom at night. It's a perfect setting for baseball and families."
Manager Bobby Cox arrived here several days ago and though he hated to leave West Palm Beach, he's delighted with the new complex.
"The only thing I can tell you is it's a gorgeous, gorgeous facility," he said. "I think it's going to be great."
The Braves have no complaints about the facility except for one detail that impacts their minor leaguers. Disney built four and a half fields, while the Braves want five and a half fields. The extra field would help alleviate the strain on the other fields used by the young players, but Disney was reluctant to spend $1 million putting in another field if it wasn't needed. The two sides agreed to see how it worked out this spring before making a decision.
Unless visa problems keep some pitchers from camp, Cox expects 25 pitchers and seven catchers to report today. However, judging by past experience, at least one, if not several, players will experience visa trouble and report late.
"You never know until the day they leave, when they go to pick up their visas," assistant general manager Dean Taylor said. "All visas have been approved, we know that."
Several pitchers, including Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Mark Wohlers and Mike Cather have already arrived. The first workout is scheduled for Saturday morning.
Braves Notes: Cox plans to rein in Smoltz, who is eager to begin throwing again following December elbow surgery.
"I'm not going to push him, no matter what he says," Cox said. "He's already getting itchy to do everything. He's been the workhouse of the organization and I don't want to lose him for too long, but I also don't want to push him. He's very important to this staff."
In a close race, Denny Neagle was chosen as the Brave of the Year by the Atlanta chapter of the Baseball Writers of America, beating Jeff Blauser by three votes. Neagle, the National League's only 20-game winner last season, received nine of the 19 votes cast. Chipper Jones and Greg Maddux received two votes each.
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