Sanford Memorial Stadium

2010 Florida Collegiate Summer League (FCSL) All Star Game held at Historic Sanford Memorial Stadium. FCSL is sponsored by NCAA & MLB. The rain was looming but the weather held up to play ball. Since 2003, top prospects, in Central Florida and beyond, are selected to play in this wood bat league. MLB players like Dante Bichette Jr. and Dee Gordon left their stamp here on their road to the big leagues. This game marks the end of the first-half and the start of a second-half. It’s a split-season format. FCSL is a part of (12) leagues that form the National Alliance of Summer Baseball. The winners of a best of 3 semi-final play each other in a final championship game. Sanford Memorial Stadium is also serves as the home field for the Sanford River Rats. This year, they ended the first half in first place, securing their spot in the play-offs.

Former MLB league players Davey Johnson and Frank Viola were also on hand to represent both teams as coaches. Davey Johnson, who played 13 seasons in the 1960’s and 1970’s, was the skipper for the Sanford River Rats of the FCSL. During his playing career, Davey Johnson was a 4-time All Star, he won 2 world championships with the Baltimore Orioles and 3 gold gloves. He also managed the New York Mets in the 1980’s and a world championship in 1986. He’s originally from Orlando and, for the most part, a Florida retiree. In 2011, that would all change when he accepted the job of Manager of the Washington Nationals. Former MLB pitcher Frank Viola, who was also retired and coaching at Lake Highland High School in Orlando, was the skipper of the Leesburg Lightning. During his 14-year pitching career in the 1980’s and 1990’s, Frank Viola was a 3-time All Star, he won a world championship with the Minnesota Twins, and he received the 1987 World Series MVP & 1988 AL Cy Young Award.

This field was originally created in 1926. It’s soon to be 100 years old. Seeing a ballpark this old is like finding a hidden treasure. That’s the best analogy. Through the test of time, ballparks occasional face the threat of demolition for a variety of reasons, most related to local economics. About a mile south of downtown Sanford, It’s hidden in plain sight; within a residential community and very easy to get access. MLB legends like Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, and local Hall of Famer Tim Raines also played here. The current stadium was built on this site in 1951; the Spring Training home for the New York Giants. In 2001, it underwent a $2 million remodel. Today, its also home to Orlando Baseball Association (OBA) and Sanford Babe Ruth Baseball.

Going into the 2010 FCSL post season, Leesburg Lightning clinched a play-off spot in the second-half of the season faced Sanford River Dogs in the semifinals. Leesburg Lightning won that series and went on the play Winter Park Diamond Dogs in the 2010 FCSL Championship game held at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. Winter Park Diamond Dogs won that close game 1-0 with an RBI hit by Diamond Dogs catcher Chase Okey in the bottom of the seventh. Regardless of where their careers have taken them, playing for FCSL in Central Florida with this level of MLB exposure makes for an unforgettable summer.

Leesburg Lights

2014 Florida Collegiate Summer League (FCSL). Since 2003, its given selected college players a chance to compete at a top level, to get scouting exposure, and to help get ready for the possibility of a professional career. Over 200 players from here have been drafted by MLB. This year, marks a new milestone for the FCSL. They gained international recognition by receiving an invitation from Korean University Baseball Federation (KUBF) for a “meet and greet” tournament. Accepting this invite meant another week in the baseball schedule for some players, a 5-game series with the Korean College All Stars, some of the top amateur athletes in South Korea. Normally, kids from FCSL would have gone back to their homes by now.

The 2014 Season came to an end August 3 with Winter Park Diamond Dawgs becoming the league’s first back-to-back champions when they defeated the Sanford River Rats 6-4 at Tropicana Field (St. Petersburg, Florida). FCSL is a wood bat league that had (6) teams in 2014; Winter Park Diamond Dawgs, Sanford River Rats, Leesburg Lightning, Winter Garden Squeeze, Deland Suns, & College Park Freedom. They finished in that order.

So, the Korean College All Stars toured FCSL. Sanford River Rats hosted Aug. 5 and Aug. 9 at Sanford Memorial Stadium. Deland Hosted Aug. 6 at Conrad Park. And, Leesburg would host Aug. 8 & Aug. 10 at Pat Thomas Stadium/Buddy Lowe Field. That was a busy schedule. It only left Thursday Aug. 7 for the young Korean athletes to enjoy the theme parks that Central Florida is known for. Selected players from FCSL were also recruited to join one of the host teams that played KUBF. 

Korean University @ Leesburg Lightning

Late in the game, it was clear that the Korean College All Stars came to play. Strong pitching and good discipline on offense proved effective. This was the first lighted baseball stadium in Florida, home to several minor leagues both affiliated and non-affiliated, as well as several spring training camps over the decades. “Baseball America” featured this field in their “2012 Great Parks” calendar.  In this first game against the Lightning, “Friday Night Lights” in Leesburg took on double meaning. By the time the lights came on, it was a cool 86 degrees, a perfect night for a ball game in the historic Pat Thomas Stadium/Buddy Lowe Field, once called “The Ballpark at Venetian Gardens.” First game played here was March 21, 1937. In the 2000’s, City of Leesburg made an effort to save this gem of a ballpark. It was dormant for most of 35 years.   

Orlando Sentinel reported that Leesburg City Commissioner Elise Dennison was thrilled about the exposure the games will provide. FCSL President Rob Sitz made a statement. “We are excited to host the Korean National Collegiate Team this week,” said President Rob Sitz. He followed up by saying “It’s the first time that we’ve had an international team come over to play us. It’s something we’re very excited to do.” Once again, baseball shows us that it is successful when politics and religion fail to bring people together.

Korean University (KUBF) beat Leesburg Lightning (FCSL) 3-1. Photos taken on Friday August 8, 2014 by Miguel A. Sanchez.

Dodgertown

Historic Dodgertown (Vero Beach, Florida), where the L.A. Dodgers trained until 2008. By the time I found this place, the Dodgers had already moved to Camelback Ranch (Glendale, Arizona). They share the facilities with the Chicago White Sox. Dodgertown captures that old-time spring training feel. Players would enter the field by literally walking stadium stands the same way the fans did. There is no tunnel, hallway, gate, or magic door. Something else unique about this park is that the dugout is caged in.

Originally known as Holman Stadium, it was built in 1953 from an abandoned Navy housing base area. Vero Beach was a military community that grew quickly during World War II. The timing could not have been better as Branch Ricky’s farm system concept would catch on with other teams and what we now know as the Minor Leagues. Brooklyn Dodgers players, coaches, and staff would eventually land here in Dodgertown as new tenants in the late 1940’s.

On the day that I visited Dodgertown, there was not a soul in sight; no sign of any gate being kept, not even a parking attendant. Surreal; I kept asking myself if this was the place. I made my way through the park and sat down on the first base side. I stared at the field and wonder what it was like to see those Dodger Legends walk around. As I held that thought, players started to walk through the stands and down to the field to practice. It was as if I was not there. I never found out where they came from. Like I said, there was not a soul in sight; a field of dreams moment.

They were the SK Wyverns a professional baseball team training for the 2012 Korean Baseball Organization (KBO), hence the flags of South Korea and the U.S. beyond centerfield. They trained here in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and came back in 2019; another partnership between SK Wyverns and the Dodgertown Family with the same commitment of sportsmanship.

Last year, MLB announced that it would rename Dodgertown as “Jackie Robinson Training Complex.” They recently assumed operational control with plans for a “year-round hub of amateur development initiatives and events” and “a yearlong schedule honoring Jackie’s legacy.”

America’s Oldest Ballpark

Older ballparks are hidden treasure, a Cliché, but true, a time capsule to this country’s history. Too often, they are at risk of demolition to give way for new development. In this case, Rickwood Field is in the shadows of downtown Birmingham, away from any risk of that. Birmingham Barons, a White Sox Double A Affiliate, is still in town. As of April 10, 2013, they play at Regions Park, a state of the art 8500 seat capacity Minor League facility, just 3.5 miles away. City of Birmingham owns Rickwood Field. Friends of Rickwood Field, a private group of 40 board members, have done an amazing job of conserving this place.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Rickwood Field opened in 1910, the oldest surviving professional baseball park in the United States. Many Baseball Legends have played here at one time or another. Willie Mays played here as a teenager with the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues, just before he signed with the New York Giants. Babe Ruth among other Baseball greats barnstormed here. The Dixie Series of the Southern Association was played here. Between 1911-1920 The Philadelphia Phillies and Pittsburgh Pirates held their Spring Training here. Seemed easier to walk in than to walk out, kept finding myself frozen in place. If you look around long enough, you can feel the years wearing on the grandstands.

The book “Rickwood Field : A Century in America’s Oldest Ballpark,” written by Allen Barra, chronicles the stories here. In a sense, its a time capsule depicting a Century in America, a great resource to the rich history and its place in the game. The park is still here for other generations to appreciate.

Allen Barra describes Rickwood Field as a place where Ku Klux Klan once held rallies and is now a symbol of hope and triumph. Some of the Legends who played here were Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth, Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Ted Williams, and Willie Mays.

Design and construction is very similar to Forbes Field. Local Industrialist Rick Woodward built it with the help of Major League Baseball owners Connie Mack and Barney Dreyfuss. Once a year, the Birmingham Barons vacate their home at the New Regions Field to play in the Rickwood Classic, a turn-back-the-clock game, wearing throw back unifroms with one of their Southern League foes. Throughout the year high schools and colleges also host tournaments on this field.

Remembering Tinker Field

At the site of the Old Tinker Field, you will only find a plaza. Tinker Field was demolished in 2015 to give way for the Old Citrus Bowl expansion next door. Citrus Bowl is now called Camping World Stadium, also used as a concert venue. Expanding the walking plaza around the stadium into rightfield made the ballpark unplayable. This, despite opposition from people trying to save the park and Tinker Field having National Historic Landmark Protections. In Central Florida, history becomes a casualty to tourism. Expansion was part of Orlando Mayor Dyer’s plan of attracting business to the downtown area, a trifecta that also includes the New Amway Arena and the Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center.

City of Orlando opened the plaza in 2018 to commemorate the history here. At the least, there’s something to recognize the 101 year history. Orlando Rays of the Southern League were the last tenants, playing here until 1999, then played in Kissimmee for a short time and eventually became the Montgomery Biscuits in Alabama. Since then, the Florida State League Advanced-A (FSL) and Florida Collegiate Summer League (FCSL) also called it home over the years. They kept Tinker Field relevant. In 2012, the Orlando team in the FCSL was renamed the Monarchs, to commemorate the legendary team from Kansas City, the longest running franchise of the Negro Leagues.

Hall of Famer Joe Tinker played on the 1908 World Champion Chicago Cubs. In 1920, he moved to Orlando and eventually retired there and became an Owner and Manager in the Florida State League. He helped promote Baseball in Central Florida and would lead the way for little league and school programs. He eventually went into Real Estate. But, because of his role in growing the popularity of the game in Central Florida, the park was named in his honor.

Tinker Field hosted MLB Spring Training for 48 years;

  • Cincinnati Reds (1923-1933)
  • Brooklyn Dodgers (1934-1935)
  • Washington Senators (1936-1960)
  • Minnesota Twins (1961)

Here is a shortlist of Legends who played here;

  • Babe Ruth
  • Mickey Mantle
  • Willie Mays
  • Cal Ripken Jr.
  • Jackie Robinson
  • Carlton Fisk
  • Johnny Bench
  • Roy Campanella
  • Sandy Koufax
  • Jim Palmer
  • Bob Feller
  • Hank Aaron
  • Reggie Jackson
  • Lou Brock
  • Ted Williams
  • Willie Stargell
  • Tony Perez
  • Stan Musial

In 1964, Martin Luther King (MLK) stopped here, during the Civil Rights Movement, and spoke from the mound to thousands sitting in the grandstands. It was ironic that Blacks were sitting in the grandstands for the first time, as they were not allowed to sit there during games. MLK told those early pioneers in Baseball, like Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron, that their work made it easy for him to carry out his mission. NBA Legend Michael Jordan also played here in his short time with the Birmingham Barons (1994-1995). Not only are there too many memories to count, Tinker Field represents a large contribution to the game of Baseball.

Field Of Dreams

The COVID-19 pandemic also prompted MLB to cancel the London Series (Chicago Cubs vs St. Louis Cardinals), the Mexico City Series (San Diego Padres vs Arizona Diamondbacks), and the Puerto Rico Series (New York Mets vs Miami Marlins), events designed to promote the game. The good news is Minnesota Twins & Detroit Tigers got their Dominican Republic Game in before postponements happened. As of now, the Field of Dreams Game (Chicago White Sox vs New York Yankees) on August 13, 2020 is still on the schedule, COVID-19 permitting off course.

The Lansing Family (former owners) sold their estate to “Go The Distance Baseball, LLC.” in 2013. Hall of Famer Wade Boggs was a part of this investment group. Back then, they promised to preserve the field and existing buildings plus add “All-Star Park Heaven”, a complex of fields for youth tournaments and an indoor training facility. “Is it Heaven? No, it’s Iowa.” the site of the home used in filming of “Field of Dreams,” starring Kevin Costner. located in Dyersville, Iowa. Its been 30 years since the movie Field of Dreams was filmed here. Was it purely accidental or was it destiny? Call it what you may. Looking back, it seemed highly unlikely that this story would go from novel, to classic film, to an icon in American Culture.

Cornstalks don’t start to reach full height until July. Harvesting is in mid-September. So in June, it still looks a little bare beyond the outfield. To ensure full height of corn stalks, filming revolved around the corn season, and during a historic drought. The production crew devised an irrigation system that would speed up corn growth. 300,000 stalks of fake silk corn were ordered from Taiwan in case irrigation didn’t work. The movie has taken on a life of its own. Although, there are baseball purists who cry foul at actor Ray Liotta’s portrayal of Shoeless Joe Jackson among other things.

Just 2-3 miles from US-20, the change from public road to rural property is sudden, as you exit the sound of traffic and are instantly surrounded by farm life and gravel roads. You may find a typical red barn or cattle grazing. Approaching a short bridge, it all starts to come into focus. You can see the site, from a distance. Its safe to say that most visitors take a pause, before crossing the bridge, to check and see if its real. As the car and the numbing sound of tires rolling over the gravel road come to a halt, its undeniable that you are here. Regardless of any renovations, improvements, or changes made to the property, it still feels like a dream.