First of Two Parts
Photo Credit: BaseballPilgrimages.com
-Al Lang Field, the photo alone makes you love spring training
It is that time of year again. With only five more days until Pitchers and Catchers Report for the Devil Rays, it is time for a preview of one of the finest regular institutions in American sports, Spring Training in Florida. Forget that fake, four teams to a city Arizona crap. This is real spring training right here. So as we dawn upon the Devil Rays' ninth spring training, what questions do they, and their 17 Grapefruit League counterparts have to face in the next six weeks? Plus, what makes spring training in Florida so great? I go team by team, with a focus on the Rays, as I preview the best time of the baseball year, in a two part series with the next chapter coming tomorrow. Today, I will focus on the lighter side of spring training. The personal and emotional felling of the author toward it, and the history of our National Pastime in Florida.
Photo Credit: BallparkWatch.com
Millions of Snowbirds can't be wrong
For over 90 years, spring baseball and Florida have gone hand in hand. The crack of those first few spring batting practices yields balls going into palm trees or lakes filled with alligators. Every spring, 18 teams from around major league baseball converge on some off the beaten path small towns (Port St. Lucie, Vero Beach, Viera) and big ones (Ft. Lauderdale, Tampa, St. Pete) to prepare for the upcoming season. For six weeks, young prospects and old veterans gasping for their last shot at a roster spot come and play all out in an attempt to curry the manager's favor. Often times, over 60 people will be competing for 25 jobs. Some of those may be future hall of famers getting their first look at a big league ballclub. Still others may be future hall of famers on their last legs, hoping for a roster spot. For both, an instrumental part of their career comes in the spring. Those palms and gators may be one of the first, or one of the last memories for a player.
-Spring training is one of the few things in sports that still belong to the fans.
Photo Credit: City of St. Petersburg
Yet spring training isn't even closely tied to the players. Each year, Florida's economy is propped up by hundreds of millions of dollars in tourism money being spent because of spring training. Whether it is two Red Sox fans on vacation taking their first look at the new squad, or two longtime Cardinal fans taking up permanent residency in their team's home, spring training is the one time of the baseball year that belongs to the fans. It allows the masses who can only dream of stardom to get up and close with their favorite stars. Spring training emits a personal connection that no other institution in any other league can duplicate. It is authentic and original, and it is my favorite part of baseball.
Spring training, the concept, dates back into the late 1800s. Some early examples include The Red Stockings of Cincinnati and the White Stockings of Chicago holding spring camps in New Orleans. The first spring with a Florida connection was believed to have occurred in 1888, when the Washington Capitals held a four day camp in Jacksonville. Another early destination in springtime was Hot Springs, Arkansas, where the Sox set up camp in the 1880s. But it was still very uncommon for teams to train outside of their home cities in the spring. Over the next two decades, team relocation to hot climates like Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia became commonplace, as well as expansion to Florida. And by 1910, spring training was well established, but St. Pete mayor Al Lang had yet to affirm the Tampa Bay area as a spring training destination.
Up to that time, St. Petersburg had had a healthy collection of spring training sties, but no flagship facility. That was, until Al Lang got the ball rolling. He tried, and failed, to convince the Pittsburgh Pirates to move to St. Pete for spring ball in 1913, but the next year was able to successfully convince the Philadelphia Phillies to move to the area the next year. They are the first team on record to have conducted spring operations in the Sunshine City. Over the next 20 years, a slew of teams occupied Waterfront Park, the spring training site about a block from present-day Al Lang Field, on the site of the former Bayfront Center. However, the Yankees called St. Pete home beginning in the early 1920s, and trained at Huggins Field in North St. Pete in the Round Lake area. The Yankees had success while training in St. Pete unlike any other baseball team previously, or even to this day. Though they packed up and moved to Ft. Lauderdale in the early 1960s, they made a mark on St. Pete by training there consistently. Huggins Field, now called Huggins-Stengel Field, still stands today in the neighborhood off of 4th St. N, and occasionally hosts semi-pro teams.
-An old postcard shot of the earlier version of Al Lang Stadium
Photo Credit: PostcardPost.coM
Meanwhile, St. Pete's success in attracting the Phillies, albeit for a one year engagement, lead to the success of other Bay Area locations. Tampa hosted a slew of teams over the next 40 years, including the Cubs, and Clearwater began to host the Phils for a limited time at old Green Field. But the cities did not find their flagship teams until the World War II era. The Cardinals began a long engagement with the city of St. Petersburg, training there from 1938-42, and 1946-1997 at the new Al Lang Stadium a block north of Waterfront Park. Tampa began hosting the Reds in 1946, and they would play most of their time in Tampa at old Al Lopez Stadium. Tampa would break off their engagement with the Reds in 1987, when they moved out to the strawberry fields of Plant City. Meanwhile Clearwater, which hosted the Phillies briefly in the 1930s, attracted them back for the 1948 spring season to Green Field, and they would move into Jack Russell Stadium in 1954. The Phillies still train in Clearwater, marking the second longest team-city relationship, falling behind only the Tigers and the City of Lakeland.
Spring Training in Florida was briefly interrupted due to travel restrictions during the Second World War, but spring baseball in Tampa Bay remained a staple in the years after. Other teams have come and gone from their longtime spring locations. The Royals in Ft. Myers, the White Sox in Sarasota, the Red Sox in Winter Haven, and the Yankees in Ft. Lauderdale, but the Tampa Bay region boasts some of the longest standing spring affiliations, bolstered even more if you include the Pirates, who have been in Bradenton since 1969 in beautiful old McKechnie Field. Over the years, Tampa would gain even more spring affiliations, with the number reaching its peak in the late 70s and early to mid 80s, when a total of five teams trained in Tampa and Pinellas County. The two extra teams came from the Mets, who shared Al Lang with the Cardinals from their inception in 1962 to their last year in 1987. The other team was the Toronto Blue Jays, who have trained in Dunedin at Grant Field since their inception in 1977, and continue to remain their despite several quarrels over stadium issues.
-The present day Al Lang Stadium, shortly after its construction.
Photo Credit: Florida State Historic Archives
A new Al Lang Stadium was constructed in the mid-1970s, the version standing today, and Grant Field received significant renovations during its lifetime, but baseball in Tampa Bay changed a lot during the late 80s and 90s. The Orioles trained in St. Petersburg for a brief period from 1992-95 when they moved out of Miami, but them leaving was not a major surprise. However after the Orioles left, Tampa brought the Yankees back to Tampa Bay in the mid 90s by paying for a spring training stadium no one had seen the likes of before. Legends Field, a 10,000 seat monster, was constructed across Dale Mabry Highway from the since-demolished Al Lopez Stadium.
Out with the old and in with the new remained the theme of the decade when St. Petersburg and the Cardinals severed their relations in 1997 after a 57 year association to make room for the hometown Rays. The Cardinals moved over to a new complex on the east coast and left Al Lang to the Rays. The Phillies and Blue Jays, too, looked headed out the door before stadium improvements were made, in the Phillies' case, an entirely new stadium after 50 years in Jack Russell Stadium.
So over the years, spring training has changed a lot around the Tampa Bay area, and you can see an excellent representation of this by walking 'Baseball Boulevard', a stretch of walkway through downtown St. Pete extending from Al Lang to the Trop, detailing year by year the spring activity in the city which has hosted more spring games than any other location. But it cannot be doubted the rich and grand history Tampa Bay has uniquely shared with spring baseball.
So as we dawn upon the 2006 spring season, the future for spring baseball is a mixed bag. Over the last few years, teams have been fleeing Florida cities for Arizona ones who offer sweet stadium deals. The Kansas City Royals, Texas Rangers, and Chicago White Sox are just a few recent examples of this. Still, more than half of the MLB teams make their spring home in Florida, and several old gems still exist within the state. McKechnie Field in Bradenton, home of the Pirates, Holman Stadium in Vero Beach, in the middle of sprawling Dodgertown, and of course, our very own, pop fly from the water Al Lang Field, with the best backdrop in all of baseball.
-Yeah, NOT SPRING TRAINING
Photo Credit: BallparkWatch.com
But for as many old gems as the state offers, monstrosities like the Braves' stadium in Disney and Legends Field pop up. I'm sorry, 10,000 seat stadiums with seats all bought up by corporate interests is not spring training. Gestapo-like security forces preventing any personal feeling in the stadium is not spring training. Double-deck stadiums built by large corporations in the middle of a terrible attempt at forging character, otherwise known as 'The Wide World of Sports', is not spring training. Alas, the tide has not spread too much. The recent stadium in Clearwater built for the Phillies, albeit in a crappy location, is an excellent facility that blends the personable, low key feeling of the sport with modern comforts. Any team looking to build a stadium in the future should look at that as a prime example.
-Way to honor the man for whom the stadium was named for over 50 years, with the small print.
Photo Credit: Boston.com
But I have one last bone to pick before I sign off, spring stadiums with corporate names. The Rays began this disgusting trend by naming Al Lang 'Florida Power Park' and later 'Progress Energy Park'. That is terrible. Any local who has been here for more than 15 years still calls it by its proper name, at whoring off a few bucks from a corporation is not worth sacrificing a local landmark. Although Clearwater's Bright House Field doesn't have the same historic name, it is still a disturbing infiltration of corporate interests into the innocent game of spring baseball. Another example of this is Knology Park, which is a complete joke. Besides the fact that the stadium is truly Grant Field, that has got to be the dumbest sounding spring park name ever. Whoever started this trend should be beaten without mercy in the town square.
But to end on a better note, spring baseball is an American tradition that truly exemplifies the beauty of our national pastime. If you have never been on a spring vacation, I urge you to do so, and if you have, go again. It is truly an experience to remember. Package it with a beach trip, or, if you really want to make the plunge, a Busch Gardens or Disney trip. But just get down to Florida some time in your life for the closest thing to a utopia in this world. And I think you will feel the same way as I do.
Okay, now we get down to the business side of things. I preview each of the Grapefruit League's 18 teams, their locations, spring battles, and place an extra focus on the Rays. I will also include helpful links, such as a master schedule and team resources. I highly recommend anyone interested in going on a spring trip to read the book Florida Spring Training by Alan Byrd. Although his dead-last ranking of Al Lang as a spring stadium is off, he has excellent previews of each stadium and even a few sample trip plans to get you started. A thoroughly excellent read. But tomorrow, I will get to the team stuff, and Sunday will feature my top prospects countdown. So there are tons of features lined up for the next week here at Bay.
-Hard as this may be to believe, most of the spring training history section came from my own noggin through memory, although I did get help for the early years through Spring Training Online, an excellent source for all things spring baseball.