A Braves’ New World

Milwaukee Brewers @ Atlanta Braves

2017 Regular Season. Atlanta Braves hosted Milwaukee Brewers at Sun Trust Bank in its inaugural year. It’s a hitter-friendly park. Wind was blowing out and Milwaukee Brewers brought their hitting sticks. On this day, the Brewers mustered runs in the first four innings to win 7-0 and ultimately salvage the last of a 3-game series with the Braves. They’ve been hot on the trail in the NL Central Division since, a thorn on the side of the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals. Something unique to Truist Park has been “The Freeze.” Otherwise known as Nigel Talton. He is an Olympic sprinter who races a fan every game in the seventh inning along the outfield warning track. Volunteers are given a head start and can win $100 if they beat “The Freeze.” His plans to compete in the 2020 Olympics were cancelled in the process of qualifying. Maybe he will surface in Tokyo for this summer’s game. As for the Atlanta Braves, they went on to earn a wild card in the 2017 Play-offs and clinched the NL East Division the following 3-years after that. In their short time at Truist Park, Atlanta Braves have been in the Post Season all 4-years. 

Turner Field, the old home field in downtown Atlanta, was only 20 years old. But, the positive economic impact of a baseball stadium on any surrounding development is hard to ignore. Globe Life Field in Texas is the latest example of that. Construction of a new stadium is also a contentious issue in the communities they are built in. Those attractive growth numbers on paper do not always translate well to the bricks and mortar. Tensions bemoan the question “who will pay for it.” But that hasn’t been a deterrent by no means. The trend is that we see more ballparks going up more often. Hence, the case in Cobb County. SunTrust, the naming rights owners, merged with BB&T Bank in 2019 to form Truist Bank. The home of the Atlanta Braves is now known as Truist Park serving as the catalyst to the “2040 Comprehensive Plan, a vision for a new era.” Much energy went into this area 18 miles north of downtown Atlanta. making it a place to live, work and play, a place to attract visitors, residents, and businesses for the next 25 years.

For generations, fans have followed this franchise steeped in history, to the near inception of baseball itself. This oldest continually operating a professional baseball team in America can be traced back to the Boston Red Stockings, established 1871 and evolving to 10 different teams, in 3 different U.S. cities, and in 9 different ballparks. If baseball is still America’s pastime, then this may be the face of the pastime. In that timeline, they’ve won 17 NL Pennants, 20 Division titles and 2 Wild Card berths. Since the inception of the World Series in 1903, they’ve won 3 World Championships; one in each city they played in (1914 Boston Braves, 1957 Milwaukee Braves, and 1995 Atlanta Braves). And in the age of Ted Turner, the Atlanta Braves became “America’s Team” in the eighties and nineties, thanks to the innovations of cable and TBS Superstation. They would broadcast games beyond regional restrictions and across the country.

Four legends of the Atlanta Braves family, who recently passed away, were honored in the 2021 home opener. They all have had an impact on the franchise as well as the game.

  • Bill Bartholomay (1928-2020)

“Mr. B” a pioneer who brought Major League Baseball to the deep south. He was a Chicago Business Executive who joined a consortium that would buy the team. Despite a successful run in Milwaukee, his vision for the future of the franchise was in Atlanta. After legal battles and death threats, there would be a National League team in Atlanta. Bill Bartholomay was instrumental for over 50 years in this endeavor, ultimately partnering with Ted Turner in the 1970’s, the genesis of “America’s Team.” He will be honored throughout the 2021 regular season.  

  • Don Sutton (1945-2021)

In his 22-year Hall of Fame career as pitcher in the Big Leagues is well known. He never played for the Atlanta Braves. But, his first years in broadcasting was in Atlanta (1989). He would eventually become the voice of “America’s Team” for decades on TBS Superstation. Dependable, durable, and consistent are the words the Atlanta Braves use to define Don Sutton. He will be honored throughout the 2021 regular season.  

  • Phil Niekro (1939-2020)

The greatest knuckle ball pitcher of all time, an ace on the staff, a true great on and off the field, a brave to his core, he was an intense competitor who forced his hitters to swing at junk. He pitched 23-years in the big leagues that included 2-tours with the Atlanta Braves. In his first tour, he debuted in 1964 with Milwaukee Braves and was part of that historic move to Atlanta, Georgia. His number 35 will be worn on the caps of the Braves players this year.

  • Hank Aaron (1934-2021)

Model of dignity, an example of excellence in the face of adversity for all Americans to celebrate. April 8th, 2021 marked the 47th anniversary of his all-time home runs record at 715. This was the first time we remembered it without him. In his story, there is a 24-year Hall of Fame career with statistics that will give you brain freeze; just dominant. Through it all, his answer was simple, “keep swinging.” He was a humanitarian whose actions spoke louder than his words, a sense of courage and nobility that went beyond the diamond. His number 44 will be worn on the caps of the Braves players this year.

After a busy winter, Atlanta Braves are still ranked at the top of the NL Eastern Division this year, expected to win +90 games and putting them in a good seed for the post season. But, the elephant in the room will be the recent decision by MLB to move the All-Star Game and MLB Draft out of Atlanta due to recent legislation aimed at voter restrictions to the ballet box. In a statement by Commissioner Rob Manfred (released April 2, 2021) he wrote, “We will continue with our plans to celebrate the memory of Hank Aaron during this season’s All-Star festivities. In addition, MLB’s planned investments to support local communities in Atlanta as part of our All-Star Legacy Projects will move forward. We are finalizing a new host city and details about these events will be announced shortly.” Opinions are split on the issue, a reflection of the polarized society that we live in. But, its simple.

Baseball reflects American culture in many different ways. In hindsight, there have been more than just a few crossroads along the way where social issues were merged with the game. James Earl Jones once said as Terrance Mann in the film Field of Dreams, ‘America has been erased like a blackboard and rebuilt again. But baseball has been the mark of time.” For the most part, the Braves have been a witness to that. Coincidence is more than just ironic that the Braves are in the midst of another contentious moment. In a Braves’ new world, they celebrate the life of  four legends while having the All-Star game and MLB Draft moved out of town on short notice, yet another model of a country divided.

Charlotte Knights

Chicago White Sox @ Charlotte Knights

2015 Spring Exhibition Game at BB&T Ballpark in Charlotte, North Carolina. Chicago White Sox visit Charlotte Knights, of the International League. After the 2021 minor league re-alignment, Charlotte Knights are now in the Triple-A East League. This addition to the schedule was part of an affiliation agreement with the Charlotte Knights, their Triple-A representative. For a Chicago White Sox prospect, Charlotte is usually the final step before a call to the show. It was a genuine opportunity for Charlotte Knights players to collectively show the major league team how much of a mistake they were making to cut them from the roster. Of the current 2021 Chicago White Sox active roster, players listed below have gone through player development with the Charlotte Knights.

  • Dylan Cease – Pitcher
  • Carlos Rodón – Pitcher
  • Aaron Bummer – Pitcher
  • Matt Foster – Pitcher
  • Michael Kopech – Pitcher
  • Zack Collins – Catcher
  • Yermin Mercedes – Catcher
  • Nick Madrigal – Infielder
  • Danny Mendick – Infielder
  • Yoan Moncada – Infielder
  • Leury García – Outfielder
  • Luis Robert – Outfielder

Pitcher Garrett Crochet was signed by the Chicago White Sox in 2020 and is the first from his draftee class to reach the Major Leagues. He did not play with Charlotte Knights. In hind sight, this glorified scrimmage game was a red flag to Manager Robin Ventura and the Chicago White Sox of a struggling season to come. They finished with a less than .500 record of 76-86 in the 2015 regular season. After this game, Chicago White Sox would start on the road, as usual, to Kansas City where they played the defending the American League Champion Kansas City Royals for a 3-game series. Then, they went home to Chicago for their home opener, hosting the Minnesota Twins. A charter bus was waiting outside BB&T Ballpark to start that journey. For the Kansas City Royals, that team still smelled blood from their loss to the San Francisco Giants in the 2014 World Series. Kansas City Royals went on to a repeat appearance in the 2015 World Series and won it all this time vs the New York Mets.

BB&T Ballpark opened in March of 2014. Seating Capacity of 10,200 makes it larger than the average Minor League Park, one of the recent renovations in the Uptown Charlotte area. Across the Street is Romare Bearden Park, a 5.4-acre public park that opened in late August 2013. From here, there are numerous viewpoints to the game. You can get a good enough idea of what’s happening in BB&T Ballpark just from sitting there. People come here with no intention of going in the park; bringing a picnic blanket to do just that. After a merger in 2019, BB&T Ballpark was renamed Truist Field. Without a doubt, this ballpark, in the middle of a thriving community, is the closest venue to MLB standards in the minor leagues. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that a professional baseball team in Charlotte is viable.

Charlotte, North Carolina tends to be in the conversation when talking about MLB future expansion cities. Two additional teams would bring the total of 32 MLB teams, an advantage in scheduling that offers the option of regional play to ease travel as they did in 2020. At approximately 900,000, Charlotte is the most populous city in North Carolina. Charlotte Knights home field is not the only venue in the Uptown area. Bank of America Stadium is home to Carolina Panthers (NFL) and Spectrum Center is home to the Charlotte Hornets (NBA). The NASCAR Hall of Fame is also nearby.

Enos Sarris of “The Athletic” reported on January 25 of this year that Commissioner Rob Manfred discussed possible finalists for MLB expansion. Portland, Las Vegas, Charlotte, and Nashville in the United States, certainly Montreal, maybe Vancouver, in Canada,’ said Rob Manfred. He also told hosts at an FS1 show, “we think there’s places in Mexico we could go over the long haul.” MLB expansion is long overdue. The last time it happened was 1998. It’s only inevitable, only time will tell the story. Still, those Friday night lights in Uptown Charlotte will call you back for more.

Next Year is Here

Detroit Tigers @ Chicago White Sox

2012 Regular Season. Chicago White Sox host Detroit Tigers at US Cellular Field on the South Side of Chicago, their first home game of the new year. It’s a great time of year. Those up north can take a break from the long winter and breath in renewed hope for the new season. On Opening Day, everyone is in first place. Its theirs to lose. For the rest of us hopeless fans, It’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for. Next year is here.

Recently minted 25-man rosters hit the floor running and can go from weathering the climatic shock of the beaming grapefruit or cactus hot sun to working the layers of thermals, stretching, and warming up in more ways than one. The weather during game time held near 65 degrees.

It’s Opening Day on Friday the 13th which is ironic in the baseball world of superstition. On this day, an estimated 38,676 paid. When prices at the ticket window are $75.00 for standing room only, you get in the Chicago way, or the second market. Lots of people not at work here, controlled chaos. The crowd was elbow to elbow, like a scene at your friendly neighborhood nightclub. although the drunk and obnoxious may outnumber the bouncers if something breaks out. It’s “Sweet Home Chicago” no less.

For the most part, Chicago White Sox start the season on the road before settling into the south side. The first game ever played here at US Cellular Field was also against the Detroit Tigers in the 1991 inaugural year, when it was Comiskey Park II. You won’t see that game in any Chicago White Sox highlight reels. Detroit Tigers massed 19 hits and scored 16 unanswered runs. On a good note, Chicago White Sox had some winning moments, later in the nineties, to drown that day out.

2012 was the first year without Ozzie Guillen as Chicago White Sox Manager. He and former White Sox teammate Robin Ventura have a side game of career jeopardy throughout the season. Ozzie Guillen jumped ship, as skipper, to accept the manager position with the newly rebranded Miami Marlins. White sox granted him a release from the one year remaining in his contract, within a couple of days, the news came out, leaked by Ozzie Guillen, that he would be heading for South Beach, departing before the start of the final 3-game homestand in the 2011 season with the Toronto Blue Jays Apparently it was part of a marketing campaign to stage Ozzie’s arrival in south Florida and to usher in a new era. Pitching Coach Don Cooper managed the last three games for the Chicago White Sox.

Former White Sox third baseman Robin Ventura was enjoying retirement life with his family in his oceanfront property in California when Owner Jerry Reinsdorf and President Kenny Williams came knocking on his door, during the off-season, to pre-emptively offer him the job as Chicago White Sox Manager. Meanwhile, the party at South Beach would take a hard turn when Ozzie Guillen made comments favorable to Fidel Castro during 2012 spring camp that infuriated the Cuban-American community in South Florida. In Chicago, he would probably get a little shade at most. In Miami, its equal to hugging the third rail. That was the beginning of the end for the Miami Marlins. A sequence of controversial moves from the front office led to a mid-season free agency yard sale and Ozzie Guillen’s dismissal of his duties when the season ended. Robin Ventura was busy with the growing pains of his new position while steering his team to a record of 85-77. After constant pushback for his laid-back demeanor and the upcoming losing seasons, he eventually saw the writing on the wall and ended his tenure in 2016.     

So, what is the name of that park on the south side? Like other naming rights arrangements, it’s a series of shameless bids focused on the highest bidder as opposed to the ring tone of a pronoun mounted over the main entrance. From 2003 to 2016, the name was US Cellular Field. Now, it’s come down to the current “Guaranteed Rate Field.” Maybe it was a good payout but the red arrow on the logo that points down is not good optics, the most out-of-touch signage. But, the good people at Miami Marlins organization said “hold my beer,” securing naming rights this year with loanDepot. They have dropped big money to enter the world of baseball. They will also be sponsoring award presentations and are the official mortgage company of Major League Baseball.   

Opening day this year is on April 8th to start a 3-game home stand against the Kansas City Royals. They started on the road again for a 4-game set with Anaheim Angels. Chicago White Sox come into the 2021 season as an off-season winner. They were busy on the hot stove making additions to put them in the post season conversation. And, there’s another familiar face at the manager position in Tony LaRussa to keep things controversial as usual. Sometimes, bad guys wear black.

Major League High School

2012 Central Florida Spring Break Slam was a nationally recognized 16 team tournament held at 3 schools in the greater Orlando area; Dr. Phillips High School, Wekiva High School, and West Orange High School. It gave these scholastics athletes a genuine opportunity to show what they had to professional scouts and college coaches. The premiere event was scheduled to be televised on the local Bright House Sports Network.

The first game of this weeklong tournament was played at Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando, Florida. Fun fact, there is a little high school located on Turkey Lake Road, behind the main entrance to Universal Studios, where some MLB players first chased their dreams to play in the big leagues. Those Dr. Phillips Alumni are Dan Miceli, A.J. Pierzynski, and Johnny Damon. They are among the numbers retired in right field of the Dr. Phillips Panthers home field. Alongside them, you will also find the number 19 for the late Scott James Muhlhan who played for the Dr. Phillips Panthers in the early 1990’s. Orlando Sentinel reported that Scott James Muhlhan died from cancer on Sunday January 11, 1998 at the age of 23. “It was Scott James Muhlhan’s cool composure and fiery determination that helped him succeed both as a baseball player and a businessman.” wrote Martin Comas of the Sentinel staff. After leading his team to the state play-offs, he went on to attend University of Central Florida where he also played and received a degree in Business Management. After which, he followed in his father’s foot steps as a pharmaceutical salesman. This is the Scott James Muhlhan Baseball Complex.

City of Windermere’s Olympia Titans faced Satellite Scorpions from City of Satellite Beach. Starting shortstop for the Olympia Titans was sophomore Nick Gordon. He is the son of Tom “Flash” Gordon who pitched in the big leagues for 21 years. He was also on hand for support. From a distance, Nick’s hopping silhouette at shortstop slightly resembled that of Ernie Banks. That may be an unfair comparison but it was my first thought. His brother Dee Gordon has been an MLB player since 2011. In 2020, he was an infielder for the Seattle Mariners. This year, he signed a minor contract with the Cincinnati Reds and has been in their spring training camp. He’s remembered for hitting that most unlikely home run in the “Jose Fernandez Game” of 2016, the first game after the said pitcher’s tragic death. Brother Nick Gordon would be drafted out of Olympia High School in the first round of the 2014 MLB draft by the Minnesota Twins. He’s been in their minor league system since then. Last year, he tested positive for Covid-19 followed by being in career jeopardy as every other minor league player found themselves in. This year he was in spring training for depth and was recently optioned back to the minors.

The championship game was held at West Orange High School baseball field in Winter Garden, Florida; home of the West Orange Warriors. Olympia Titans beat the Rockledge Raiders (City of Rockledge) to take the 2012 Central Florida Spring Break Slam title. This game made it 18 wins and 0 losses for the Olympia Titans. They went on to finish the regular season with a perfect 25-0 record in 2012, the first school to do so in Central Florida history. Olympia High School baseball coach Randy O’Neal is also a former MLB player. He holds something unique in his career. On September 12 of 1984, he was called up from the minors and debuted with the Detroit Tigers, pitching in the game to clinch the 1984 AL East Division Pennant. He had the experience of enjoying his debut game with his new teammates and the champagne celebration in the clubhouse.

MVP Jesse Winker was on the national prospect radar. He was also a first-round selectee in the 2012 MLB draft out of Olympia High School and has worked his way up the ranks to finally be promoted to the Major League team on April 14, 2017. Despite his injury and performance setbacks, he continues to hold a job as an outfielder for the Cincinnati Reds. At the start of 2021 Spring Training, Jesse Winker found himself sharing Cincinnati Reds camp with Dee Gordon who was competing for the shortstop position, the brother of his old high school teammate. You would think that Nick Gordon’s ears must be ringing. With all the negative impact on the game these days, baseball is one big family that continues to find a way to deal with the adversity. Hitting the ball 3 out of 10 times is still the mark of success and lesson number one has been to learn from failure.

Land of Kaline

Welcome to “Tiger Town.” Since 1934, the City of Lakeland & Detroit Tigers have had the longest working relationship between any spring training city-host and a Major League Baseball team. Oddly enough, 1934 was the year Detroit Tiger Legend Al Kaline was born. He passed away on April 06, 2020; one of 11 Hall of Famers who have died in the last year or so. Just recently, son Mark Kaline posted a message of gratitude to the team for keeping a locker in the Tiger clubhouse with a uniform ready to go for his dad in the 2021 spring training this year as a sign of respect. In 1954, a 19-year old Al Kaline ventured into the City of Lakeland for the first time to report for spring training with the Detroit Tigers. Back then, Tigers trained at Henley Field just a mile and a half north of here. Joker Marchant Stadium didn’t open until 1966. He signed with the Tigers in 1953 and joined the team shortly after high school. Not only did he play for the Tigers his entire 21-year MLB career, he went on the work for the team as a broadcaster, a special assistant to the team President, and a series of coaching positions. Keeping the number 6 uniform in the clubhouse is a tradition 66 years old and counting. Yes, this is the Land of Kaline and it has called me back many times over the years. Visit the City of Lakeland long enough and it will start to grow on you as it did for “Mr. Tiger.” Here are two of my visits.

New York Yankees @ Detroit Tigers

2010 Spring Training: Detroit Tigers hosted New York Yankees at Joker Marchant Stadium; named after a late parks and recreation director. In his first game against his old Yankee teammates, Johnny Damon was back to his Yankee killing ways with 2 hits, including 1 home run, and 2 RBIs, just like his days with the Boston Red Sox. The 2010 regular season ended in an 81-81 record for the Tigers, an even .500. Longtime voice of the Tigers Ernie Harwell passed away little after spring training on May 4th. He spent a big part of his broadcasting career calling the games Al Kaline played in. From 1960 to 2002, his career with the Tigers started and ended here in Lakeland, Florida. First game was called in Henley Field. The last game was here in Joker Marchant Stadium where he held an end of spring training press conference to announce his retirement. Another Tiger tradition was when Ernie Harwell would kick-off with a biblical recital of “Voice of the Turtle.”

For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone, the flowers appear on the earth, the time of the singing of the birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in the land.

Ernie Harwell lived in Lakeland, Florida and only missed 2 games in his 55-year career. Something unique to his life was that, after discovering he had an inoperable tumor, he clearly knew his time in this earth was coming to end. It was a farewell tour like none other.

Florida Southern College Moccasins @ Detroit Tigers 

2017 Spring Training: Detroit Tigers hosted Florida Southern College Moccasins on Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium, the first game of the young season. There was a celebration of the longstanding relationship between City of Lakeland and Detroit Tigers. A new agreement of $37 million in renovations and a 20-year deal that ensures “Tiger Town” will be here for an un-precedented 100 years. Publix. the new sponsor, is a large chain of supermarkets that also has their Headquarters here in town.

The Florida Southern College Moccasins is a local Division II program. At the time, they had 9 National Championships and 41 post season appearances, were invited to open Spring Training 2017. Campus is located approximately three and a half miles south of this stadium. Baseball Almanac lists 12 Alumni who have played in MLB.

  • Greg Pryor (1968-1970)
  • Andy Mc Gaffigan (1977-1978)
  • Ralph Citarella (1977-1979)
  • Rob Dibble (1983-1983)
  • James hurst (1988-1989)
  • Carlos Reyes (1990-1991)
  • John Hudek (1987-1988)
  • Brett Tompko (1995-1995)
  • Eddie Gaillard (1992-1993)
  • Lance Niekro (2000-2000)
  • Matt Joyce (2005-2005)
  • Gus Schlosser (2010 2011)

Detroit Tigers selected Colin Kaline (grandson of Al Kaline) in the 2007 MLB draft. He did not sign and instead played for Florida Southern College. He later did sign with the Tigers and played in their minor leagues (2011-2012). SB Nation staff writer Ashley MacLennan reported that Manager Brad Ausmus offered the Moccasins a pitcher or two that he had as extras. Florida Southern College declined the offer. Regardless of the crushing results in this game, surely it was a once in a lifetime experiences and Moccasins begged to differ on anyone suggesting this was not a real game.

Grapefruit Classic

Team Puerto Rico @ Minnesota Twins

2013 Spring Training: Minnesota Twins hosted Team Puerto Rico at Hammond Stadium, in Fort Myers, Florida. This area in Southwest Florida is the commercial center of Lee County. Twins have trained here since 1991. The Boston Red Sox also train in Fort Myers. It helps with the schedule to have another team in town. Still, its a challenge to get around in Florida when road trips can be 2-3 hours if you’re lucky. In contrast, the training complexes in Arizona are all 30 minutes from each other. It’s been something to consider for teams who moved from Florida to Arizona. Nonetheless, the game of baseball has thrived in Fort Myers since Thomas Edison lived here over 100 years ago.

Terry Park, located 22 minutes north of Hammond Stadium, first held professional games in 1914 when the Louisville Colonels of the American Association trained there. Roberto Clemente first reported to spring training at Terry Park in the 1950’s. The Pittsburgh Pirates trained there at the time. Little would he know that a team representing his homeland would visit a Major League Team here almost 60 years later. This was an exhibition game to promote the upcoming 2013 World Baseball Classic. On this day, New York Yankees also hosted Team Dominican Republic 125 miles away in Tampa, Florida. Over in the Arizona Cactus league, it was Team Mexico vs Chicago White Sox and Team USA vs LA Dodgers. Today it’s not so easy to understand how important these games where. Back then, if anyone said these games didn’t matter would be lying to themselves. There was no way these matches would end in a tie or a “mercy rule” as is the case in 2021 Spring Training. The thought process is understandable given the concerns coming off a truncated season in 2020. But the optics are terrible for ticket paying customers.

No comparison to the loud cheers in the stands from the Team Puerto Rico faithful at Hammond Stadium. The band even came out to play the “Parrandas” of the island. A source of pride or obnoxious, depending on how you look at it. A win would be hard earned from the Twins. And, that it was; a slugfest. Outfielder Angel Pagan, who’s day job was with San Francisco Giants, led the offense going 2-3 with an RBI. Eddie Rosario was in the line-up for Team Puerto Rico. He was drafted by the Twins in 2010 and eventually debuted for them in 2015. Some of the other known Major Leaguers on Team Puerto Rico were Alex Rios, Carlos Beltran, Mike Aviles, and two of the Molina Brothers (Yadier and Jose). The lead changed 4 times while Team Puerto Rico massed 17 hits to barely top the Minnesota Twins 8-7. After this, Team Puerto Rico would head for San Juan to begin the 2013 World Baseball Classic for the first round in pool C at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in Hato Rey, Puerto Rico.

Minnesota Twins ended the 2013 Regular Season 4th place in their division with a 66-96 record. Baseball Prospectus PECOTA projections have the Twins heavily favored in the AL Central Division for 2021. They have good reason to feel this way. But, as someone once prophetically said in hindsight, “that’s why you play the game.”

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.

Spartans at Phillies

University of Tampa Spartans @ Philadelphia Phillies

2016 Spring Training Philadelphia Phillies hosted University of Tampa Baseball with an impressive resume best described by the analogy of their mascot, the Spartans. They are the best kept secret in baseball; reigning in the shadows of college baseball. As in the 2006 film “300,” this Division II college baseball program has “stood and fought” with the highest level of competition.  In January of 2014, the Spartans went to Cuba on a good will tour and went undefeated with a 3-0 record. The intent was a cultural exchange. Nonetheless, they played tough teams. Spartan later won the 2015 NCAA Division II National Title. That tournament was held at the USA Baseball National Training Center in Cary, North Carolina. Since their first NCAA Division II National Championship in 1992, they’ve gone on to win (8) total; (5) of those titles in the last (15) years. Spartans have been on the good side of winning baseball; playing .500 since its 1978 season. During that same time, there have been over 50 MLB Amateur Draft Picks who came from University of Tampa.

In 2015, 2016, and 2017, Spartans were invited by the Philadelphia Phillies to play an exhibition game, kicking off Spring Training at Bright House Field (currently renamed Spectrum Field), the Florida home of the Philadelphia Phillies. These invites are not unique to the Phillies. Other teams have done the same. The New York Mets have played University of Michigan Wolverines and the Boston Red Sox have played Boston College. This was the second invitation for the Spartans. Just the year before, Spartans beat the Philadelphia Phillies 6-2; their inaugural game in the Grapefruit League. Andrew Amaro, the nephew of General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr. was on that Spartans team. It goes without saying that Ruben Amaro Jr. received ongoing questions about the upcoming 2015 Regular Season. For the most part, Spartans were playing with players at the Triple-A level. Of course, any given MLB team will send invitations to their prospects at varying levels of player development and can have a roster with as many as (45) players in camp. Clearwater, Florida, is “Phillies Nation.” The city has hosted the Philadelphia Phillies Spring Training since 1947.

There’s no doubt that these young Phillies were playing like their life depended on it. Yet, the mutual respect and overall friendliness between the two teams was very noticeable. The Phillies were on the right side of winning on this day, beating Spartans 8-3. For the 2016 regular season, Phillies would go on to win (15) games in the month of April.