Fans fall for spring training
By Gary McKechnie
Ariel coverage of Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, FL.
I’m always baffled why, after the final game of October’s World Series, baseball fans go into a state of “suspended anticipation” as they patiently await the next season. Why don’t they just go to Florida? More specifically, straight to Tampa Bay.
Draw a 50-mile circle around Tampa Bay and within that circle are five stadiums where baseball players take the field during spring training. Hang around for a few weeks and you’ll see fans cheering for the Blue Jays (Dunedin), the Phillies (Clearwater), the Pirates (Bradenton) and the Tigers (Lakeland). But the enthusiasm of baseball fanatics reaches truly epic levels at the largest stadium, which offers a home-away-from-home to the only team that’s won a record-setting 27 World Series Championships, 18 division titles and 40 American League pennants. We’re talking about the legendary New York Yankees and Florida’s largest spring training field, the 11,026-seat Steinbrenner Field.
From the painted “NY” at home plate to plaques paying tribute to Yankees whose numbers have been retired, there’s something very familiar about this particular field of dreams. From a distance, you can see that the grandstand’s distinctive scalloped frieze is a loving tribute to the Bronx Bombers. And fans, especially those escaping New York’s frigid winters, are eager to share that the dimensions of the field match (to the inch) those of ‘The House That Ruth Built” (circa-1923 Yankee Stadium). If you’re curious, that’s 318 feet (left field), 399 feet (left-center), 408 feet (center field), 385 feet (right-center) and 314 feet (right field).
Clearly, heritage and traditions mean a lot to all baseball fans. It means even more to fans in Tampa Bay, whose passion for the sport dates back to ’78.
Steinbrenner Field, the location of the New York Yankees' Spring Training (photo credit: Robert La Follette)
Back when Tampa Bay was just an unincorporated town of around 800 residents, a nine-man baseball team had already been formed. Put another way, that means professional ballplayers made up roughly one percent of the town’s population (at the same ratio, today a local team would have 3,577 players in its line up).
From the very start, the sport fit Tampa Bay like a baseball glove. Tampa Bay’s team took on visiting players from across Florida and fascination with the fledgling game picked up steam. Surprisingly, in the 1880s, the sport that would become America’s Pastime got an extra boost when Cuban immigrants arrived to work in the new cigar factories being built in Ybor City. It turns out that baseball was already Cuba’s most popular sport (they’d imported it from America), and in after-hours pick-up games, workers proficient at rolling cigars proved they were equally skilled at hitting home runs. Tampa Bay’s baseball fans couldn’t get enough. In the following years, professional teams from Havana were competing with local players from the National, American and Negro Leagues. Without a doubt, baseball was essential in integrating Tampa Bay’s diverse cultures and shaping the community.
The next major step came in 1913, when the major leagues chose Tampa Bay for spring training and began a relationship with the city that continues to this day. The Chicago Cubs arrived first to play at Plant Field and were followed by the Boston Red Sox, Washington Senators, Detroit Tigers, Cincinnati Reds, Chicago White Sox and, of course, the New York Yankees.
The minor leagues weren’t far behind with the Tampa Smokers beginning their run in 1919. The team is no longer, but several others have popped up in its place. In 1994, the Tampa Yankees opened up shop and still play the great game today. You can also watch the Clearwater Threshers, the Bradenton Marauders, the Lakeland Flying Tigers and the Dunedin Blue Jays in the Tampa Bay area.
If you’re in the neighborhood during the regular season, the “Big Show” is across the bay where the Tampa Bay Rays, the area’s first professional major league team, score the home field advantage every time they play at 31,042-seat Tropicana Field.
Over the decades, Tampa Bay has made the acquaintance of legends: Willie Mays, Babe Ruth (who hit his longest home run here for the Red Sox), Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, and new legends Dwight Gooden and Derek Jeter. For some locals, the biggest treat of all was seeing their old pal, Al López.
López, the seventh of nine sons of Cuban immigrants, got his training on the sand lots of Ybor City, which led to his place as starting catcher for the Dodgers, Pittsburgh Pirates and Cleveland Indians. The first Tampa native to enter the major leagues, López was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977.
There’s a natural camaraderie between baseball and Tampa Bay that is unique. If you’d like to get a sense of how this mutual respect strengthened over the years, make plans to visit the Tampa Baseball Museum in Ybor City, which is expected to open in late 2016. You’ll find it at the childhood home of Al López.
The sense of history heightens when fans enter the gates of Steinbrenner Field, walk through the concourse, and then step through a passage where the field of dreams becomes a reality. There’s a palpable sense of excitement. Beautifully landscaped, spotlessly clean and easily recognizable, the Steinbrenner Field instills visitors with a sense of awe. This is the home of legends.
In bullpens and on the field, players are warming up with practice swings, long throws and effortless grabs. A colorful combination of red dirt, green grass and row upon row of blue seats stretches in a semi-circle around the field. Fans, many wearing Yankees caps and jerseys, are checking their programs and settling down with popcorn, peanuts, hot dogs, soft drinks and cold beer. When they see a chance to get an autograph from a favorite player, some scramble to the first row clutching baseballs, photos and caps.
Soon the teams are introduced. Hats come off during the national anthem, the dugouts are filled, the umpire dusts off home plate, a batter steps in the box, the pitcher winds up…
And, as it has since 1878, a Tampa Bay tradition continues.