The Boys of Summer are back in town.
All over Florida, baseball teams are unpacking for another spring training, every one of them thinking: This is going to be the year. They call it the Grapefruit League.
In Sarasota, this means the Cincinnati Reds are setting up camp again at Ed Smith Stadium. And in Fort Myers, the Red Sox are taking the field at City of Palms Park.
Ed Smith and City of Palms are typical of the spring training facilities that have sprouted across the state over the last decade or so. Sparkling, multimillion-dollar mini stadiums built by cities to keep or woo teams for the economic benefit.
Who can argue with the results? They're wonderful fields: modern, comfortable, clean, convenient, perfect in almost every way. And whenever I see a game at one of them, I can't help but yearn nostalgically for another field that was none of those things.
In 1987, I became the Sarasota County reporter for The Tampa Tribune. I lived in a rental behind the Dairy Queen on U.S. 301. A few steps across the street was old Payne Park, home of the White Sox spring games. Three minutes from my front door to the bleachers.
Payne Park was a terrible facility in almost every way. I loved it.
Near the end, Payne wouldn't even rate as an acceptable minor league field. The back of the dugouts opened underneath the grandstands, and players had to walk between the girders, then wade through the crowds at the concession stands to get to the antiquated clubhouse.
That's why it was so special. The whole magic of Florida's spring training season is the chance to get much closer to the game than during the regular season. By that yardstick, the loss of Payne grows with each passing season. I've seen many spring training parks over the years and none was remotely as intimate, especially the new stadiums, which are designed to keep the fans at a distance, unless the players decide to head over to the stands for autographs.
But at Payne, they had no choice. I remember Darryl Strawberry at the height of his popularity getting mobbed by kids holding up baseballs and cards and pens. It was like a scene from A Hard Day's Night; he practically had to fight his way to get under the grandstands and into the dugout. At other times, however, the sight of all-stars strolling through the crowd was so commonplace that it was taken for granted. I recall seeing heroes of a previous World Series having to say "excuse me" to break through the hot dog line and get to the showers. It was obviously far from the ideal situation. Except for the fans. Like when Bo Jackson walked within inches of me, telling a teammate on the Kansas City Royals how he was up late last night feeding his newborn child. It made you feel a part of the game, not some arm's-length target market for faceless sports corporations.
Besides the incredible access, the other special aspect to Payne Park was its history. The Red Sox played in Sarasota from 1933 to 1958 (with a short gap during World War II). Many of the league's publicity photos are taken during spring training. I bought one that was taken 50 years ago and had it autographed a while back. It's Ted Williams posing in a menacing hitter's
stance, the Sarasota County courthouse rising in the background behind the park. I went on the Internet to research this article and found a Web site, springtrainingonline.com. On the Red Sox page is a hand-tinted postcard from the 1940s; and, yep, good 'ol downtown Sarasota is in the background.
But it's not just the Red Sox. There were the visiting teams. Yankees, Tigers, Twins ... When they built Ed Smith, they demolished the old field and converted it into a city park with tennis courts. It's hard to imagine from the way it looks now, but just about every Hall of Famer who played the game in the middle of the last century walked the ground under those tennis courts.
In 1959, the Red Sox left Payne Park for Scottsdale, Ariz., later moving to Winter Haven before finally ending up in Fort Myers in 1993, giving the city a single, Kevin Bacon degree of separation with Sarasota.
But Payne wasn't through generating memories. The Chicago White Sox arrived in 1960 and stayed until they moved across town to Ed Smith in 1989.
Some favorite personal recollections: Spotting hitting champ George Brett in his street clothes, leaning against a car in the parking lot, going completely unrecognized, and easily getting a ball signed.
Spotting Carlton Fisk in his street clothes behind the grandstands and getting him to sign a picture of his famous home run off the foul pole to win the sixth game of the 1975 World Series.
Watching pitcher Tommy John taking 20 minutes to get from the clubhouse to the field, graciously honoring every autograph request.
Talking to the late Don Drysdale-also in street clothes and going unmolested and unnoticed outside the clubhouse (except for the keenly observant Captain Florida).
Hanging around after the crowd left one spring afternoon, and getting the surprise treat of the teams retaking the field-sans umpires-for a few extra practice innings. There was at least $25 million in salary on that field, playing for me and maybe a dozen other people who had moved down to the coveted first row.
In the late '80s, you knew the end was near. Other cities in Florida were busy building spring training monstrosities. Meanwhile, Payne Park still retained its retro, 1950s sign proclaiming Sarasota home of the White Sox. Except some idiot had thrown a rock through it. And they didn't fix it. It was not a good omen.
In the end they built Ed Smith, and it was the right call. I've got a clipping somewhere of the farewell-to-Payne-Park spread they ran in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Okay, so they tore down a quaint old park with lots of great memories. Too bad, but it was still a dump; and besides, I have a life to live.
Fifteen years have since passed. The White Sox played at Ed Smith until 1993, when they left for Tucson, and the Cincinnati Reds took their place. And Payne's absence hits home a little more with the opening of each spring schedule. The new fields got bigger and the players tinier. The Yankees' Legends Field went up in Tampa in 1996, and Cracker Jack Stadium opened in Disney World the following year, with respective capacities of 10,200 and 9,500, humongous by spring training standards. (Although you have to love the relatively cozy City of Palms, capacity 6,990, which has a great row of palm trees along the outfield wall that lend an old Florida feel.)
The memories of Payne continued growing fonder, or maybe they were just predictably building in mythology and schmaltz with the passage of time. It didn't help that I made frequent visits to the home of longtime Sarasota journalist Rick Barry, my bureau chief from the old days and fellow baseball fanatic. When they were tearing down Payne, he bought four of the forest-green box seats at salvage and had them set up at his house.
The price of the chairs: $80.
Being able to still touch a piece of Payne Park: Priceless.