Little Cooperstown

St. Petersburg History Museum (Founded 1920) celebrating a Centennial this year. The mission has been to collect, preserve, and communicate the history and heritage of Florida. A late summer drive here was to see “Schrader’s Little Cooperstown,” one of the exhibits on display at St. Petersburg Museum of History. A complete catalogue of autographed baseballs can be found in the museum’s website. Guinness has honored this collection of over 4800 autographed baseballs as the largest private collection of its kind in the world. Total value of collection is some two million dollars. Some of the highlights included the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, a special section for the Negro Leagues. But, autographs go beyond the field, from Elvis Presley to Millvina Dean, the last known survivor of the Titanic. It also covers 100 years of Spring Training history in the Tampa area. “I’ve never seen a collection to compare with it,” said Norman Chester of All-American Sports Collectibles.

“Little Cooperstown,” as Dennis Schrader dubbed it, holds the world record for largest collection of autographed baseballs. He had his first baseball signed from Mickey Mantle in 1956 as a nine-year kid. Mickey trained with the New York Yankees in St. Petersburg, Florida. Growing up in Florida, it evolved into what is it today. He’s been an active dealer in sports collectibles over the 25-30 years. But, that first signed ball from Mickey Mantle did not survive the test of time. Like many kids that age, he had no idea what that ball would be worth and took it out to play baseball. The collection has not gone without controversy. Some of the autographs have been challenged by experts over the years. Dennis Schrader also had a long struggle with Guinness. On October 18, 2011 CBS News reported owner Dennis Schrader finally received his certificate from Guinness during the previous summer. This collection does not just tell a story of historical events in this region and around the world. With each baseball and the autograph of the person who signed, its a testament explaining why this game has been the American Pastime.

Los Industriales

2013 was the 50th Anniversary of the Industriales from the Cuban Baseball National Series League, representing the country’s capital of Havana. Within that span of time, Industriales have won 12 Serie National Championships, an event held every February in Cuba. They are considered the New York Yankees of the island. Their blue uniforms are as iconic as the pinstripes in the Bronx. “Somos Cuba Entertainment Group” organized a reunion to celebrate the 50 years of winning baseball history.

A group of invited Industriales Legends traveled from their home in Cuba to Miami, Florida; arriving on Monday August 12, 2013. They were reunited with old friends and relatives, including ex-patriots who also played for the Industriales. They made television appearances. In addition, they also took part in a guided tour of Little Havana’s Marlins Park and paid their respects to the Virgin of Charity in the Coconut Grove Shrine. Also, on the itinerary was a meeting with LA Dodger Yaseil Puig who was in town to play the Miami Marlins.

Cuban Legend Lázaro Vargas, also took the short flight to Miami. But he was anxious to get back to his team. He was once again selected as the Manager for the current Industriales team in Cuba. He would return to lead them into the new Fall Season. BBC News reported that, once in his prime, Laura Vargas refused a $10M offer to leave Cuba for the U.S. Also, on hand, was Enrique Díaz, an ageless Cuban baseball player that played in the Cuban League for more than 25 years. Although he never played for the Cuban national team, He was the all time hits leader in the Cuban League.

Decisions are life changing for a Cuban ball player; some have defected to play Major League Baseball and others have stayed in Cuba to excel at international competition. Since the Revolution, players have defected to the U.S. for an opportunity to play professionally, with some 108 reaching their goal to play Major League Baseball. In the 2014 All-Star Game, there were 5 Cuban born ball players on the roster; Yoenis Cespedes (Boston Red Sox), Jose Abreu (Chicago White Sox), Alexei Ramirez (Chicago White Sox), Yaseil Puig (LA Dodgers), and Aroldis Chapman (Cincinnati Reds). Many others have followed and have become highly touted players.

Florida International University (FIU) was originally set to host a Legend’s game between the visiting invitees and the former Industriales who now reside in the U.S. They formed a squad called the “Miami All Stars.” On that team was Chicago White Sox and 2005 World Series Champion Jose Contreras. Within the pompous circumstances, NBC Miami reported that FIU caved in to pressure from a local exile group. With anticipated hostility at the park, the school backed out of the deal, due to another “contractual situation.” The political group in the Cuban-American community of South Florida demanded to not sponsor anything involving the Cuban Government.

Without a baseball field, no one was sure where they would play the exhibition games. Instead, they played a couple games here on the field of Alonzo High School in Tampa. Cuban born Miami Marlins Pitcher Jose Fernandez once crafted his pitching skills here, winning the 6A State Baseball Championship twice. He debuted in April of 2013 with the Miami Marlins. Unlike other Cuban born players in MLB. Jose Fernandez came to the U.S. at a young age and learned the game of baseball under the instruction of Orlando Chinea, a legendary Cuban coach living in Florida. Jose Fernandez was a rising star but tragically lost his life, at the age of 24, in a boating accident in September of 2016.

“Somos Cuba Entertainment Group” also managed to organize a game at Fort Lauderdale Stadium on short notice. Ironically, that was where the New York Yankees once held their spring training between 1962 and 1995. Baseball succeeds when politics and religion fail to bring people together.   

Steinbrenner Field

Washington Nationals @ New York Yankees.

Was able to catch a game before the rain, and before COVID-19. New York Yankees celebrate their 25th Spring Training at Steinbrenner Field here in Tampa, Florida. For the most part, 4-5 weeks of Spring Training go by really fast. Chances of rain in Florida make it a hit-or-miss if you decide to take the road trip. In this case, it worked out. The New York Yankees hosted the Washington Nationals and played 5 innings before the downpour. That’s a complete game on any scorecard, success! Yankee Masahiro Tanaka pitched the first two innings and the New York Yankees out hit the Washington Nationals. News broke later the same day. Yankees Pitcher Luis Severino had a torn ligament in his right elbow that would require Tommy John surgery. He would be out for the 2020 season. 

Little did we know that there were bigger problems, of the pandemic kind, around the corner. Recent additions to the 2019 World Champion Washington Nationals, free agents Starlin Castro and Emilio Bonifacio, were in the line up. Just the week before, the team had a second victory parade for their fans in downtown West Palm Beach near their Spring Training facilities, a complex they share with the scandal affected Houston Astros organization. 

Speaking of second chances, MLB announced this week that the 2020 regular season is set to begin July 23 or 24. Schedule is pending. 1800 Players will report in the coming days to Spring Training (2.0). That said, the strained labor relations between owners and players is yet another obstacle in the challenges ahead, something that will linger in the business of baseball for the next 18 months. It’s still unclear what the season will look like or how the protocol for the pandemic will play out. But, the game seems to be getting past the stalemate of issues. 

There will be a 60-game schedule or 2 months of baseball this year. Every team will have a universal designated hitter. Team rosters will start with 30 players instead of the normal 25 players. Each team will also hold an additional 20 players on reserve. They can be called upon for depth as the season goes. That would open doors for those fortunate minor league players who have been at the highest risk of career death. 

This game belongs to the fan. The billionaires and millionaires tend to forget that. The beauty of Baseball is being able to sit down to watch a game and to totally forget the problems outside the lines. And, when you get up from that seat, you somehow find the handles to the thing that was stressing you out. What to look for this year? Who knows? Moving forward, it will be fluid. There will be pent up frustration from months of quarantine, possible issues of cheating in the air, venomous offers from the owners, career uncertainty will give an ever present sense of urgency from players in different stages of their shelf life. In a 162-game schedule, August represents the dog days of summer. With a 60-game schedule which virtually starts in August, everyone is expected to play with fresh legs and with less concerns for fatigue. It will be a 200-yard dash to the postseason with no time for slumps. The fluidity may be explosive. It could be a season like none other, COVID-19 permitting.