Wolverines at Mets

University of Michigan Wolverines @ New York Mets

2013 Spring Training: The New York Mets hosted an exhibition game with the University of Michigan Wolverines at Tradition Field in Port St. Lucie, Florida; part of a trend to open the Grapefruit League with an invitation for collegiate teams to compete at the professional level for a day. Some of the things you see in college play remained the same. Players on the Wolverines bench still ran down the foul line for warm-up routines between innings. The game ended with the traditional handshakes with the opposing team. It’s an ideal time for this match-up; Spring Training camps are well underway and Spring Break is travel time for college teams to fine tune their rosters.

New York Mets have been training at Tradition Field since 1988. It’s also home to the Port St. Lucie Mets (Advance-A Affiliate) of the Florida State League. This game also marked a historic event in baseball. The umpiring crew of four included two women; both in the shadows of Bernice Gera (a graduate of Florida Baseball School and first female minor league umpire in 1972). Fred Wilpon, the New York Mets owner at the time, is a U of M Alumni who was on their baseball team. A torn rotator cuff ended that in his junior year of 1956. The baseball and softball complex on campus has been named in his honor. For the Wolverines, it’s an awesome working spring break trip to the sunshine state. They will not all make it to MLB. But this experience is a memory they will keep for a lifetime. 

Still, over 80 Wolverines have historically made it to MLB; Four Wolverines were just signed last year in the 2020 MLB Draft. Hall of Famer Derek Jeter was offered a scholarship to play there and even took classes. But, instead of playing for the program at U of M, he understandably opted for the $800,000 bonus out of high school offered by the New York Yankees who drafted him. The rest is history. Most notable on the list of U of I alumni in MLB is Jim Abbott who, despite being born without a right hand, played for the Michigan Wolverines and went on to become a U.S.A. Gold Medal Olympian in the 1988 summer games, eventually going to play for 10 different MLB teams. One important day in his career is a no-hitter he threw in 1993 for the New York Yankees.

In the line-up for the New York Mets was Justin Turner. This was his last season with the team. The next year he was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers where he is now a 2020 World Champion and the longest tenured player on the roster. Journeyman Marlon Byrd signed a minor league contract with the New York Mets after he completed a 50-game suspension for using banned substances with the Boston Red Sox. Ironically, Boston was where he sustained a devastating injury while with the Chicago Cubs. Red Sox pitcher Alfredo Aceves hit him with a pitch near his left eye. Say what you want about Marlon Byrd. He managed to extend his longevity, after a potentially career ending injury, to a 14-year career at the highest level. And, speaking of injuries, Ruben Tejada was also in the Mets line-up. He later suffered a broken leg in the 2015 NLDS caused by an overzealous slide by Los Angeles Dodger Chase Utley at second base. MLB updated its rules after this incident. It’s now considered interference and an automatic out if its determined that a runner tried to make contact with the second baseman.

Wally Backman of the 1986 World Champion New York Mets was on hand as part of the New York Mets Coaching staff. He served as an ideal baseball ambassador for this event. In 2004, he was promoted from within the Arizona Diamondbacks organization to manage the Major league squad. After a series of legal problems became public, he was fired a few days later. He continued to pursue a coaching career after that. Part of that journey was documented in the TV series “Playing for Peanuts.” It highlights his comeback story as the manager of the South Georgia Peanuts of the Independent South Coast League. The locker room entertainment value is through the roof. After this spring training tour, he went on to manage the Las Vegas 51s a Mets AAA-Affiliate of the Pacific Coast League; leading them to an 81-63 record and winning the Pacific South Division title. He won PCL Manager of the year in 2014. Despite the setbacks and eventual fallout with New York Mets General Manager Sandy Alderson, Wally Backman has sustained a coaching career that speaks for itself. He’s been regarded as a player’s manager. Today he is skipper for the Long Island Ducks of the Atlantic League.

Osceola County Stadium

New York Yankees @ Houston Astros

2012 Spring Training. Houston Astros hosted the New York Yankees at Osceola County Stadium in Kissimmee, Florida; a year where they would play their last season in the National League. After this, they went from the National League (NL) Central Division to American League (AL) Western Division. All the other teams in the AL West we’re building championship caliber teams at the time. Josh Hamilton and the Texas Rangers were still relevant after playing in the 2010 & 2011 World Series. Albert Pujols was starting the first of his 10-year $240,000,000 contract with the Los Angeles Angels; the same time when Mike Trout would be the Rookie of the year and a strong candidate for the MVP every year after that. Oakland A’s were matched with Detroit Tigers in the 2012 AL Division Series and Seattle Mariners played in an AL Wild Card Game. In other words, the Houston Astros were moving to a division that was feverishly developing their organizations from the ground up for sustainable winning. But, Astros were also working on a 5-year rebuild that would put them in a position to win in that group. This was the same year that Houston Astros signed Carlos Correa as the overall first round draft pick. Chicago Cubs and more recently Chicago White Sox have done something similar; focusing on player development, down to the A-ball level. Players from the 2017 championship team, like Jose Altuve and Marwin Gonzalez, were already with the organization. Long time Astro Carlos Lee was traded to the Miami Marlins later that year.

A game with the New York Yankees was good practice for that; facing a line-up that included players like Raul Ibanez, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, and Robinson Cano in the lineup. There is always a huge following for the New York Yankees when they are in Kissimmee, Florida. It’s more of a barnstorming atmosphere than the typical methodical spring training game. Of the list of parks visited, Osceola County Stadium is my most attended. But this is true in all the Spring Training venues. There is always a short-list of teams who have the potential to sell out higher priced tickets in any spring training park that they arrive at; a dynamic reserved for a larger market team or a defending champion.

When the Houston Astros pitchers and catchers reported to Spring Training the following year, it was a new year, a new division, in new uniforms, with new ownership in Jim Crane, and a new front office; eventually a new president in Reid Ryan, son of legendary Nolan Ryan. Jeff Luhnow was on hand to meet all invitees on their first day at the alternate fields next to Osceola County Stadium. The new general manager hired by the Houston Astros the previous December. The first few days of reporting are usually the best time to interact and get autographs. You’re up close and personal with the players, who rotate from station to station during their drills and exercises. Sometimes it’s just a rope that separates you from the action.

As I walked around, I passed a player and, as a gesture, I wished him good luck. “Thanks,” he said as he headed for the batting cages. Initially, I didn’t recognize him. After looking again, I asked if he used to be a pitcher. “Yes!” he said. He was a position player who reported early to do some work in the batting cages. But it was only natural that he be with pitchers and catchers. It was Rick Ankiel who debuted as a pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1999. Issues with control ended his pitching. His toughest outing was game one of the 2000 NLDS, when Tony Larussa slipped him in under the media radar after many of his pitchers were injured that post season. After a series of setbacks, he came back in 2007 as a centerfielder and reinvented his career. He made the 2013 Houston Astros squad but was released a month later, then picked up by the New York Mets and finally made his last MLB appearance June 08, 2013. In one word; resilient.

The Houston Astros trained here until 2016. After that, they moved to a $148.6 million complex in West Palm Beach that they now share with the Washington Nationals. Sadly, this would eventually leave a void for baseball in Central Florida. Florida Fire Frogs (Atlanta Braves Advance-A Affiliate) called this home until they also moved to a new facility last year in Sarasota, Florida. But, since 1984, Osceola County Stadium has withstood the test of time. Its still a haven for USSSA tournaments, the building along the right field line houses their Hall of Fame and Museum.

Fenway South

Minnesota Twins @ Boston Red Sox

2012 Spring Training at Jet Blue Park; an inaugural year for The Boston Red Sox. They hosted Minnesota Twins at the new ballpark better known to Red Sox nation as “Fenway South.”  Before this, they trained at City of Palms Park, since 1993. Today, that park is home to Florida South Western State College. The Boston Red Sox would report to their new home under precarious conditions from the epic collapse late in the 2011 regular season. With renewed hope that comes from an upcoming spring, they dusted themselves off in an $80 million facility here in Fort Myers, Florida. Bobby Valentine was hired to steer the ship as the Boston Red Sox Manager for this 2012 regular season. In hindsight, it was the beginning of the end as the Red Sox went on to only win 69 games in that campaign. In his 2017 book, “Papi: My Story,” he recalls the 2012 regular season as the worst of his stretch with Beantown. This, as opposed to 2013 when Boston won it all and David Ortiz was World Series MVP; just a year later.

Jet Blue Park opened March 04, 2012. Construction cost was subsidized, in part, by bonds from Lee County, also the owners of City of Palms Park. Seems like a lot of money for something used 30-45 days in the Spring. Grievances aside, it’s a great place for a ball game. The Rookie League GCL Red Sox of the Gulf Coast League also played approximately 40 home games here. In 2013, The Florida High School Athletic Association started to have their final rounds of baseball state championships here in the month of May.

Aside from the mass following of the Red Sox Nation faithful, Jet Blue Park has design elements similar to the iconic Fenway Park. The most obvious is a “Green Monster” wall in left field. There’s a “Pesky’s Pole” to mark foul territory in rightfield, including the signatures and written messages from attending fans. The bullpen locations are also beyond the right-center field wall; just before a “Williamsport” area. Minnesota Twins first baseman Justin Morneau was in the middle of a three-year struggle from a concussion sustained in 2010. He came back this year to play 134 games with a .257 batting average. Teammate and catcher Joe Mauer was also coming back from various ailments in 2011. He went on to set the all-time Minnesota Twins record for most games played by a catcher (832).

Dustin Pedroia was also in the game for the Boston Red Sox. His ordeals with the disabled list are well document. After three years of battling injuries, Dustin Pedroia was forced to finally announce his retirement this week. From 2006 to 2019, Dustin Pedroia was 2007 Rookie of the Year, 2008 AL MVP, a 3-time World Champion, 4-time All Star, and 4-time Gold Glove. And a 2008 silver slugger. With 1805 total hits, he ranks 8th with the Boston Red Sox in all-time hits, finishing with a .299 batting average; a 300 hitter if you round it off. He is the only player to attain a World Series Title, an MVP, a Rookie of the Year, and Gold Gloves all in his first two seasons. Not bad for someone who spent much of the start to his career convincing security that he was on the team. That, along with other discouraging episodes, was attributed to his 5’-9” stature. Being called out on his height or lack thereof, was something Dustin Pedroia grew used to. “I didn’t know there was a height requirement like when you go the theme parks,” he once said. I’m sure that it was a source of motivation.

Last but not least, it was a very hot day at the ballpark. Hydration and occasional shelter are key. The forecast on this day in early April was an average high of 86.5 degrees; reaching an actual high of 91.9 degrees. At times, ballparks are revisited after an inaugural year to address sun and shade issues, both for player and fans. For example, lack of shelter for fans sometimes requires installations of canopies. The Florida sun is unforgiving. In general, negotiating around it requires the skills to both prepare and adapt. We can now add pandemic protocols to that list of acquired skills. The Boston Red Sox announced February 02, 2021 that fans will be allowed to attend at 24% capacity, primarily on the back fields. As of now, they’re set to begin February 17, 2021.

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.   

Miller Park

2010 Regular Season at Miller Park and the Milwaukee Brewers are hosting the Minnesota Twins. There are other stadiums with retractable roofs. But this one is fan-shaped that starts at midpoint and extends out to the perimeter of the structure. Completed in 2001, its one of the largest construction projects in Wisconsin history, great place for a ball game. Casey McGehee and Rickey Weeks hit home runs for Milwaukee which means “Bernie Brewer” went down his slide beyond left field. Prince Fielder was still roaming first base before the career ending injury in 2016. This was my second visit and the Twins were in town both times. Milwaukee is about a 7-hour drive to from Minneapolis. The trip is not long at all for the Twins faithful who turned out for the game. Milwaukee baseball is one of the best kept secrets in the sport. It’s a long tradition that traces back to 1901 at the start of the American League (AL). That team would move to St’ Louis to become the St. Louis Browns. For the early 20th Century, Milwaukee Brewers were a Minor League Team. Milwaukee Chicks of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League played a single season in 1944 and won the Championship.

Before Miller Park, the Milwaukee Brewers played in Milwaukee County Stadium Where the Milwaukee Braves also once played. That Braves era captured the rising stardom of future Hall of Famer Hank Aaron, becoming the NL MVP and a part of the World Champions in 1957. The Milwaukee Brewers were originally the Seattle Pilots. In their only season of 1969, the Pilots finished last in the AL West with a record of 64-98, as expected with any inaugural expansion team. Bud Selig, who was the eventual Commissioner of Baseball, led a group that purchased the Pilots, then moved them to Milwaukee as Brewers just days before the start of the 1970 Season. Milwaukee Brewers were in the AL Division, in the same division with Chicago White Sox, until 1998. Now they are a thorn on the side of Chicago Cubs in recent years. Miller Park is a couple of hours from Chicago so Cub fans migrate here to support their team. In fact, its safe to say teams in the Midwest have a loyal fan base willing to take that road trip to a tail gate.

Hall of Famer Paul Molitor played on both the Brewers and Twins teams. He is remembered more for his 1993 MVP year with the World Champion Toronto Blue Jays. Yet, he left an indelible mark on the Milwaukee Brewers and the A.L. Championship run in 1982. Hall of Famers Robyn Yount and Rollie Fingers were also part of that historic 1982, better known in Milwaukee as “Harvey’s Wall Bangers” (named after their Manager Harvey Keunn), a colorful cast of characters that went on to face the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1982 World Series. Robin “The Kid” Yount who was called up out of high school played his entire career in Milwaukee (1974-1993), still the last 18-year-old to hit a home run in MLB history. “Fingers” who defined the value of a relief pitcher was at the tail end of his career. He was able to get 29 saves for the “Brew Crew” before the injuries. Paul Molitor, Robin Yount, and Bob Uecker have their numbers retired here. There’s a punchline in there somewhere. Only Bob Uecker can deliver on that. He’s been in baseball for 50 years and Milwaukee would not be the same without him.

Minnesota Twins @ Milwaukee Brewers

Sun Life Stadium

Colorado Rockies @ Florida Marlins

2011 Regular Season at Sun Life Stadium. Florida Marlins hosted the Colorado Rockies in a night game, the second match of a three-game series. Considering the heat, rain, and humidity in Florida, weather conditions were perfect for baseball in Miami Gardens. This was the final year for the Florida Marlins here at Sun Life Stadium. The New Marlins Park would open in 2012 as the 22nd new MLB stadium since the New Comiskey Park opened in 1991. The team moved there as the re-named Miami Marlins, complete with a marketing plan that included a new image, new logo, new uniforms, etc. Sun Life Stadium was originally built as Joe Robbie Stadium (opened 1987) with a budget of $115 million, $273 million in today’s dollars. That’s still impressive. Construction cost can easily surpass $500 million in the current market. This was the only MLB park that was initially built for Football. Six Superbowl games were played here (1989, 1995, 1999, 2007, 2010, 2020). The 1997 & 2003 World Series were also played here and the Florida Marlins won them both Some of the other names for this facility have been Pro Player Park, Pro Player Stadium, Dolphins Stadium, and Land Shark Stadium. As of 2016, its known as Hard Rock Stadium. It now serves as the home of the Miami Dolphins (NFL), the Miami Hurricanes (NCAA), and the Orange Bowl. The long history of sporting events continues with the NCAA National Football Championship in 2021.

It’s hard to believe that the 1997 & the 2003 World Series were played here. When the baseball game is between innings, reminders of a football stadium set in. At first, seating capacity was set at almost 75,000 but has been scaled down over the years. It was eventually made the home of the newly expanded Florida Marlins in 1993. For baseball, seating was set to some 40,000 seats. Most of the time, the sea of orange seating in the upper deck would remain unused during baseball games.

Florida Marlins won the 2003 World Series in Yankee Stadium. Game 7 of the 1997 World Series took place here. On that day, Edgar Renteria hit an 11th inning walk off single to win at all for the Florida Marlins. He will forever be remembered for that victory, a moment in World Series history familiar to most baseball fans. The Franchise enjoyed those two World Championships despite the challenges of playing baseball here. Sun Life Stadium is located 15 miles north of Downtown Miami, an outlying part of town. Games were historically exposed to the constant threat of rain.

In 2011, the Florida Marlins promoted post game concerts after Saturday home games, for the 5th consecutive year, known as the Baker Concrete Super Saturdays. This, in an effort to improve attendance. But the struggle has been real. In August of this same year, The Florida Marlins hosted the Cincinnati Reds in a game that only drew 347 fans, due to Hurricane Irene. It was the least attended game in MLB History. I went on the day “El Gran Combo” was performing, a legendary salsa group from Puerto Rico. They’ve been performing since 1962 and after 49 years they can still bring out the best in a crowd. They were dancing in the rows and aisles. Within a matter of minutes after the game, stage, sound and lights were set up around the second base area. The concert alone was well worth the trip. This was also a double bonus for “El Gran Combo.” They’re huge baseball fans. “Pitbull” and “U2” also performed that summer. Fans also had the option of purchasing VIP “pit passes” for a more up-close experience including pregame parties and celebrity meet and great. Despite the season, Saturday nights were a win-win.

Great American Ball Park

Washington Nationals @ Cincinnati Reds

2015 Regular Season. A spring visit to Great American Ball Park. I was on a road trip from Chicago, Illinois to Raleigh, North Carolina and stopped in town to catch the Cincinnati Reds hosting the Washington Nationals in a Sunday afternoon game. This is the seventh home field for Cincinnati Reds since their inception. There’s more baseball history here than in the urban legend of Cooperstown, New York and Abner Doubleday. Harry Wright Managed the first professional baseball team here in 1869. It used to be that the official first game of the season was always in the Cincinnati home field. In fact, Opening Day is practically a holiday in the Queen City.

Besides Tiger Stadium in Detroit, the Old Crosley Field is a park that, if it were possible, I would go back in time to visit. Growing up in Cincinnati, Pete Rose would go to games in Crosley Field with his dad. Its where he debuted in 1963. That was also where the first MLB night game was played in 1935.

I did get to see Riverfront Stadium in 1998. It was actually called Cinergy Field at the time. That was the site of more great baseball, when the “Big Red Machine” was dominant in the 1970’s. One of my early memories of baseball was watching that team on NBC Game of the Week with Joe Garagiola and Tony Kubek.

Great American Ball Park opened in 2003. A subliminal sign of Pete Rose, the banned “Hit King,” was created by the Architect beyond centerfield. An arrangement or placement of seven bats at the top of each of the two smoke stacks together add up to 14, the number of Pete Rose during his baseball career. In June of 2016, he was inducted into the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame and, in the following season, his statute was unveiled along the other legends featuring him posed in his trademark head first slide into the base.

It was an odd entry into baseball the record book. Cincinnati first basemen Joey Votto walked on three balls in the seventh inning and nobody noticed, not the umpires, not the score keeper, not the broadcasters, or even the coaches. Cincinnati Reds third baseman Todd Frazier went 3 for 4 with 2 runs scored and 2 runs batted in. When it comes to a baseball pilgrimage, this layover was well worth it.

Hiram Bithorn Stadium

New York Mets @ Florida Marlins

2010 Regular Season at Hiram Bithorn Stadium. The Florida Marlins hosted the New York Mets for a three-game series in Hato Rey, Puerto Rico. The humidity was thick in the air. Any sudden move would initiate a watershed moment of profuse perspiration. Players were claiming their spot near the cooling fans in the dugouts. But it was a privilege to take part of an event such as this. It wasn’t the first time MLB visited Puerto Rico. In 2003, Omar Minaya, the General Manager of the Montreal Expos, promoted 22 home games in Puerto Rico to help generate revenue for a troubled franchised. It was a success and it set the table for this series to happen. This time he was on hand as the General Manager of the New York Mets. Fun fact; David Samson, the former Executive VP of the Montreal Expos, who took part in its fallout and led the negotiations of the Florida Marlins purchase in 2002, was also on hand as President of the Florida Marlins.

Among the other dignitaries, Mrs. Vera Clemente, the widow of Roberto Clemente, and her son Luis Clemente were presented a donation of $37,050 for San Jorge Children’s Hospital during a pre-game ceremony. Just recently, Edwin Rodriguez was hired as Florida Marlins Manager; making him the first Manager of Puerto Rican origin in MLB history. It was an unforeseen circumstance. The previous Manager, Fredi Gonzalez was fired for sitting Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez down during a game after a lack of hustle. The front office questioned his decision to take the team’s star out of the line-up. Legend Bobby Cox was retiring and put in a good word for Fredi Gonzalez to replace him as Manager of the Atlanta Braves. Hanley Ramirez would later move to third base in 2012 to make room for short stop Jose Reyes who was starting in this game for the New York Mets. Mike Stanton, a player to be renamed later as Giancarlo Stanton, had just debuted with the Florida Marlins in early June. This was also a special day for his family in more ways than one. His maternal great great grand mother was from Puerto Rico.

Hiram Bithorn Stadium was named after the first Puerto Rican MLB player. He pitched for the Chicago Cubs between 1942 & 1946; also serving in the U.S. Navy (1944-45). His final season was with the Chicago White Sox in 1947. He paved the way for many players to come. Professional Baseball in Puerto Rico can be traced back to 1938. But, baseball’s origin on the island goes back to the 1890’s during the Spanish American War. Ironic that it’s start was during a time of war, just as it was during the Civil War on the mainland. Baseball always has a way of bringing people together, even in a time of war. Its not a coincidence that Hiram Bithorn Stadiums’ Art Deco design is similar to that of Dodger Stadium. The most common element is the “V” or “W” shaped roof line seen in both parks. They opened a year from each other in the sixties when that style took a resurgence. It gave Americana a mood of optimism and hopefulness that later flourished into the hippie culture.

Hiram Bithorn Stadium has played an integral part of professional Baseball in Puerto Rico. Leysa Caro Gonzalez from “El Nueva Dia” recently reported on a proposal by a Candidate for San Juan Mayor (Rosanna Lopez) called “San Juan se Recrea y Compite.” It promotes a healthy living via physical activity and nutrition. Hiram Bithorn Stadium would be an important part of this endeavor. It’s a response to the downside of stay at home living due to COVID-19. The concern among those in some circles on the island is that it did not mention anything about professional baseball. They’ve seen this same lack of priorities for the game of baseball that is attributed to the decline of the sport 10-15 years ago and the eventual cancelation of the 2007-2008 Winter League Season, due to lack of funding. The hope is that this time there is a groundswell of support to advocate for professional baseball. Just as the mainland, its yet another thing at stake in an election year.     

Berth of the Wild Cards

2011 Post Season at Tropicana Field. The Tampa Bay Rays hosted the Texas Rangers for Game 3 of the American League Division Series (ALDS). During the last game of the 2011 regular season schedule, the Tampa Bay Rays were hosting the New York Yankees, they would also come back from a 5-0 deficit in the second inning. Throughout all of baseball, that day was for the ages. It’s been dubbed as “Game 162.” On that day, eight teams and four games still had a role to shape the wild card teams and the match-ups to determine what the post season would look like. The situation left four teams still trying to clinch two play-off spots. With four other games to determine home field advantage, no play-off games were set yet. The Rays would come back from nine games down for a playoff berth. It would all be decided in a compacted 129 minutes. The Boston Red Sox had a historic collapse to lose a big lead in their division and ultimately lose any chance to play in the post season, among other climatic finishes throughout baseball that day.

Only 85 miles in Central Florida, going to a post season game in Tampa was a challenge I could not refuse. This was game 3 of the ALDS against the Texas Rangers. There is a different feel to a play-off game. When you’re a baseball fan, the electricity in the park runs through your veins, whether it’s your team or not. There’s normally lots of signage and festive decoration; red, white, and blue banners pleated in shape of a fans called bunting, oddly enough. They’re as old as the American Flag. I’ve been to Tropicana Field countless times since I moved to Florida. Never was the atmosphere like this. The park was sold out, the first time that I saw that at Tropicana Field. In Florida, there are too many outdoor activities for most Floridians to opt into attending a game. I find that sports teams in Florida mostly get a life-line from people who have relocated here from up-north, where loyalty runs deep.

David Price was the starting pitcher for the Tampa Rays. They seem to have always done well against him. Manager Joe Maddon was at work in trying to pull a win out of his toolbox and Bench Coach Dave Martinez was still a big part of Joe Maddon’s supporting cast. They would both go on to a historic run with the Chicago Cubs and Dave Martinez was the winning Manager with the Washington Nationals in 2019. Andrew Friedman was still Director of Player Development for the Tampa Bay Rays. He would go to the Los Angeles Dodgers to help steer their post season run to present day. Tampa Bay Rays have played .500 ball six of the last ten years. Since 2008, they’ve been to the post season six times. It proves that player development program is dynamic, still run by knowledgeable folks who bought into the system.

Tampa Bay Rays were eliminated three games to one. Josh Hamilton and the Texas Rangers were too strong a team and were looking to repeat an appearance to the World Series after losing to the San Francisco Giants in 2010. Meanwhile, Andrian Beltre was busy putting up the numbers for the Texas Rangers that will one day land him in the Hall of Fame. His estimated time of arrival is 2023. Texas Rangers went on to face the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2011 World Series and lost a hard-fought battle that appeared to never end because both sides kept scoring. Ironically, the Texas Rangers would once again lose World Series, this time to a wild card team. During the 1981 strike season, the wild card was briefly used but was not officially part of the game until 1994 (during another strike). In 2012, MLB installed a second wild card. Both wild card teams in each league would play in a single elimination game in an effort to repeat the same excitement as “Game 162.”

Yankee Stadium

Philadelphia Phillies @ New York Yankees

2009 Regular Season at the New Yankee Stadium for the inaugural season to see the Yankees take on the Philadelphia Phillies in an interleague game. Ironically enough they would face each other again this same year in the 2009 World Series. It’s late spring and the 2008 World Champion Philadelphia Phillies were looking to repeat as the New York Yankees were looking for World Championship #27 to commemorate their new home across East 161st Street. Needless to say, there was a post-season atmosphere. Saying the wrong thing could get you punched in the mouth; when in the Bronx. The city of brotherly love is only 95 miles away; lots of fans with active “Phillies” gear on hand.

I had the opportunity to see “Old Yankee Stadium” in its final year. Here, I had yet another chance to see the New Yankee Stadium in its first year; two gracious invitations that I’ve appreciated as a baseball fan with every year since. I was amazed to see how much of the “Yankee Tradition” was seamlessly transplanted in the new park. It helps that, in both parks, the No. 4 train & D train is still beyond right field; running back and forth over River Ave.

Memorial Park was not quick done but it didn’t take away from the experience. This, in contrast to the Chicago White Sox and their move to the New Comiskey Park across the street. It was sterile; going from “Baseball Palace of the World” to the last of the cookie-cutter stadiums. As we all know from experience, there is no such thing as a small move. And, it’s especially true here. Think of all the hardware, the championships, and the baseball history that was systematically transported. Nothing was lost; familiar elements of the Old Yankee Stadium with all the state-of-the-art technology. Construction cost came in at $2.3 Billion. The old one still stood across the way, boarded up, as if it were a giant storage unit.

The iconic Architectural frieze across the roofline was new and improve, brighter than ever. Placement of signage, banners, and video compilations reminds you of how many Trophies are housed here. As the game started, the Bleacher Creatures roll call made their way around the starting nine as they’ve always done. The ground crew took a break from dragging the field to perform the YMCA dance. God Bless America was played in the seventh inning, as opposed to “Take me Out to the Ballgame. And, every time Derek Jeter came to bat, a voice from the past would silenced the crowd. “Now batting for the American League, from the New York Yankees, the short stop, number two, Derek Jeter, number two.” – said Bob Shepard. The Sandman (Mariano River) did not enter. After a combined 23 hits, the Philadelphia Phillies held their lead and won 4-3.

The New York Yankees ultimately went on to win World Championship #27 in 2009. In turn, Manager Joe Girardi would change his uniform number from #27 to #28 the next year, setting the new milestone. The New York Yankees accomplished the same feat of winning in the inaugural year of their new home, just as they did in 1923 when they first opened “Old Yankee Stadium.”