Champion Stadium

Miami Marlins @ Atlanta Braves

Spring Training 2012 at Champion Stadium; part of ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex located in Walt Disney World (Lake Buena Vista, Florida). Atlanta Braves hosted Miami Marlins in late March, as teams finalized their rosters. But, the news throughout baseball broke here just moments before the game. Atlanta Braves third base star Chipper Jones announced he would retire at the end of the season. On this day, he took a pre-game walk to home plate and exchanged starting line-ups with Joey Cora of the Miami Marlins and to exchange pleasantries with Joe West and the three other umpires on duty. He received a lengthy standing ovation on his way back to the dugout, rightly so. In 18 years with the Atlanta Braves, he is an 8-time all-star, a 2-time silver slugger, the 1999 NL MVP, a 2008 batting champion, and a 1995 World Champion. Chipper Jones was the face of all those post season years for the Atlanta Braves.

Over in the other dugout was the newly minted Miami Marlins team. Over the off-season, the Franchise in South Beach was preparing to open the New Marlins Park; launching a marketing campaign that rebranded the team from the Florida Marlins to the Miami Marlins, a throwback to the Triple-A Minor league team (1956-1960). Satchel Paige played for that team in the twilight of his career. The front office also worked feverishly in the hot stove to make good on their promise of putting a team on the field that would go the World Series. Free agents like Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez singed on to the build. The Marlins were also close to signing Albert Pujols, who was also on the free agency market after winning the 2011 World Series. He would reject a contract worth up to $300 million over 10 years from the Marlins. Apparently, the deal breaker was a no trade clause that was non negotiable as far as Pujols was concerned. He would sign with the Los Angeles Angels at $254 million, also over 10 years. It was substantially less money but included a full no trade clause from the Angels. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise as the Marlins would be plagued by controversy. For the Marlins, the season would fizzle into a bad ending to a B-movie.

Champion Stadium was the Spring Training home for the Atlanta Braves from 1997 (opening year) to 2019. The team now trains at CoolToday Park (Sarasota, Florida). Technically, it opened for the last spring training game of 2019. But, 2020 was to be the inaugural year. Over the years the 7500 seat Champion Stadium has been home to baseball tournaments at just about every level of amateur, as well as professional, competition. This was the site of the 2006 World Baseball Classic; First round, Pool D. In an effort to promote Tampa Rays fandom. The team scheduled a regular season series in the 2007 (Texas Rangers) and the 2008 Regular Seasons. The Rays won all six of those games. Champion Stadium is one of the ballparks most visited in my baseball pilgrimage; purely by default. I lived nearby for over 15 years. I was here when Sammy Sosa, with the Texas Rangers, returned to the team that first signed him to play his final year in 2007.  I also had the fortune of seeing David Ortiz and Team Dominican face Mike Piazza and Team Italia in the 2006 World Baseball Classic. Hall of Famer Mike Piazza would go on to coach Team Italia under the counseling of legendary Tommy Lasorda.

And speaking of legends, with the passing of Hall of Famer Hank Aaron today, the Braves family, along with the rest of the world, mourn the loss of an icon that was a legend among legends. In the last nine months, (10) Hall of Famers have passed away. The annual induction ceremonies in August of 2020 were cancelled. When the Hall of Fame does reconvene, roll call will be difficult.   

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