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.   

Reporting for Camp

Spending the day in Champion Stadium at Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex. Atlanta Braves position players were reporting for Spring Training 2013. Soon, the NBA will be in “The Bubble,” (somewhere near this field) to resume the 2019-20 basketball season. We shall see. And, so we shall see about the MLB season. There was no admission to see the players report to camp. But, I managed to have access. I will leave names out to protect the innocent. As of last year, the Atlanta Braves no longer train here. They did so from 1997 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. Atlanta Braves partnered with Sarasota County in a $140 million venture. They signed a 30 year lease to develop the organization in the 6200 seat capacity complex, bells and whistles included. In a related story, the Florida Fire Frogs (Atlanta Braves Advanced-A Affiliate), were also expected to move from Osceola County Stadium (Kissimmee, Florida) to CoolToday Park starting Summer of 2020. Regardless of any pandemic, labor, or minor league issues, MLB will no longer play in Central Florida. The nearest facility is now Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium (Lakeland, Florida) where the Detroit Tigers have had spring training since 1934. Its a bit of a stretch. But, I guess you can say the Tampa Rays are part of Central Florida. Its ironic that, with the exception of rain, an environment ideal for baseball is not necessarily a viable business model.

Through out the year, there are multi-sport tournaments or events at Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex. On this day, there was also a girls soccer tournament nearby. Most of the foot traffic was attributed to that. Here at camp, everything started with stretching-calisthenics. You never want to get hurt. But, that’s especially true when players are trying to hold a job. The trainer had a small meeting to tell players how to hold on to the stretch-out straps because they will “slip, snap back, and take an eye out,” good to know. “That’s all I got,” he said. The training went on to some running and more stretching, defensive drills, then breaking up into smaller groups. Watching the team lining up for calisthenics is the same as a high school team would do. At every level, its still the same universal game. Grown men playing a little boy’s game, as they say.

Among the coaching staff were some familiar faces from baseball in the 1990’s. Third Base Legend Terry Pendleton is a permanent fixture in the organization. Coach Doug Dascenzo (former Chicago Cubs player) worked with the outfielders, hitting fungos. Ron Gant patrolled left field for the Atlanta Braves. But, on this day, he was getting an interview in for his broadcasting job. At the start of the 2013 regular season, Atlanta Braves were projected to have the best outfield in MLB, Justin Upton in left field, his brother B.J. Upton in center field, and Jason Heyward in right field.

The Upton brothers were newly acquired. Chances of two brothers playing together on the same MLB team are slim. Some 20-pairs of brothers have done so. There was some sort of side-game competition with missed or overthrown balls while the new Braves brothers played catch. B.J. was disputing a point that Justin was scoring and Jason Heyward was holding the jury while both sides pleaded their case. The point counted. Was it sibling rivalry or just a competitive drive? I’m guessing all of the above.