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.