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Sunday Favorites: Squeeze the Juice, the Grapefruit League is Back!


The day was warm and there wasn't a cloud in the sky.

It was just after noon and people were filing into Ed Smith Stadium wearing the home team's orange, white and black. Some fans wore the colors of the visiting club. Others like myself wore anything they wanted, just happy to be out in the sunshine and ready to see a game.

Families waited in line at the box office, old men stood around on 12th Street, their hats cocked sideways, muttering about last year's failures and this year's prospects. Scalpers moved among the crowd trying to sell tickets at face value, hoping to squeeze in a few sales before first pitch and their prices bottomed out.

Inside, girls with long hair and tight shorts walked together in groups, all of them wearing mirror front sunglasses, while cries of the beer man could be heard bouncing around the ballpark like some ancient echo.

Concession lines swelled and shrunk, peanut shells were thrown recklessly in the stands, and somewhere a father was telling his son to keep his glove ready.

Baseball was back.

It was the home opener for the Baltimore Orioles, and the Toronto Blue Jays made the trek from their spring home in Dunedin for the occasion.

I didn't care much about the outcome despite the obvious American League implications (Im a Rays fan), but I considered it an honor to once again be a part of a Florida tradition that goes back generations.

I stole a seat in the outfield because I had a general admission ticket. I put my feet up, I drank draft beer, I followed the game when I felt like it and watched with mild interest as Baltimore took a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the third.

But, I couldn't help but feel like I was part of history, or in the very least experiencing it on some level that still draws thousands of people to Florida for the so-called "Grapefruit League," which pumps millions of dollars into local economies and, in some ways, has become an industry all its own.

2014 marks the 126th year that spring baseball has "officially" been in Florida, as teams from places like Cincinnati, Chicago and Washington DC started the tradition when they headed south so managers and owners could evaluate players before the start of the season.


Starting in 1888, the Washington Nationals called Jacksonville their spring home for a decade, and their catcher was a young man named Connie Mack, the grandfather of former US Senator from Florida Connie Mack III, and great grandfather of current US Congressman Connie Mack IV.

Mack would eventually become manager of the Philadelphia Athletics and he took his club to Jacksonville, but he hated it. He claimed that the distance his team had to travel caused them to constantly finish in last place, along with all the "tropical temptations" that his players had to face, like alligator wrestling and crazy southern women. He vowed to never return to Jacksonville, but by 1914 the Athletics had claimed several World Series titles and Mack grew to love the state, eventually planting roots.

Spring training didn't come to the Bay Area until the same year the Athletics were again champs, as the Chicago Cubs were drawn to Tampa by then mayor D.B. Mackey, who promised to cover expenses up to $100 for each player, a large chunk of change for that era.

St. Pete got into the mix right around the same time when Branch Rickey, who years later would be the man to help break the color barrier in professional sports by signing Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers, brought his St. Louis Browns to St. Pete's waterfront to the site of what is now Al Lang Field, known at the time as "Sunshine Park," which was state of the art when built.

Soon, the St. Louis Cardinals gravitated toward St. Augustine, and with four teams in place, the rough framework of what would eventually be known as the Grapefruit League was in place.

By 1920, the New York Yankees had come to the Bay Area (with famous slugger Herman "Babe" Ruth in tow), the Red Sox found their spring home in Sarasota in 1933 and the Detroit Tigers landed in Lakeland in 1934, where they still remain today. McKechnie Field in Bradenton was built in 1923, and would eventually become home to the Pittsburgh Pirates, while the Philadelphia Phillies settled in Clearwater by 1946.

In 1947, The world famous "Dodgertown" was carved out of an old army base in Vero Beach by then-Brooklyn General Manager Branch Rickey. The Dodgers would stay in Vero Beach for decades until they decided to pull up stakes and head west for the "Cactus League", which was taking shape during the same time in Arizona.

The 1970's and 1980's saw the addition of teams like the Minnesota Twins in Fort Myers, the Blue Jays in Dunedin, the Texas Rangers in Port Charlotte and the Houston Astros in Osceola County, while the New York Mets chose Port St. Lucie as their home after spending 25 years in St. Pete.

Teams would shift and move throughout the years, as elected officials wooed big league clubs to their towns with promises of multi-million dollar facilities and corporate sponsors. The Red Sox eventually bolted Sarasota for Fort Myers where they now play in an $80 million stadium called Jet Blue Park, or "Fenway South", which boasts a replica of the dreaded Green Monster; Ed Smith Stadium once played host to the Chicago White Sox, but they took off for Arizona and the Orioles moved in while Sarasota County Commissioners spent $31 million to retrofit the place.

Of course, none of that really mattered as I watched Toronto score five in the top of the sixth, which put them up by four runs. I figured the game was over at that point, so I started to take stock of those around me.

Most weren't paying attention to the game, except for a few diehards decked out in head to toe Orioles gear. With no time clock, baseball is inherently lazy from a spectator standpoint. But on that sunny Sarasota day it seemed even more so. For 87 years baseball has been in the Bay Area, and there have  been untold days just like this for generations; northerners chatting about how great the weather is, fans cat-calling the visiting players, most everyone smiling and having fun.

I left my seat to wander the stadium, figuring I'd kill the rest of the game by checking out different views. I stole a seat high along the third base line; I next stole one above home plate; I found a nice breezy spot along the first base side where I stayed long enough to sing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." Still 6-2, the game seemed over, but no one was leaving.

The Blue Jays tacked another one on at the top of the eighth, and all of both team's stars had long hit the showers. Game over. Now it was all guys hoping to make the team, guys who were destined for minor league ball games, many of which are played on the same fields during the summer after their big league brethren are long gone.

But, something funny happened with the lead off man for Orioles in bottom of the eighth. A stand up double put him on, and just like that, the Orioles' reserves were on their way. Seven runs and a big fat zero for Toronto in the ninth closed the game and Baltimore fans went home happy (or like me, to the bar next door).

There's nothing quite like a spring training baseball game in Florida. For those of us who live here, I imagine the experience might be a little different. Because for nine innings we get to experience our state like a visitor, seeing these great ballparks through the same kind of eyes that people have used to gaze out over their favorite teams for years.

There's only a few weeks left now. But there's still plenty of time to catch a game. No matter where you live, head to the ball park for a few hours. Drink a beer, have a hot dog and catch some sun. You never know, you may just be sitting among history.


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