Cleveland Indians Camp
Winter Haven, FL
Devil Rays at Indians - March 24, 2004 (1:00 PM)
Reds at Tigers - March 24, 2004 (6:00 PM)

Today was “old favorites” day as we took in two of our favorite spring facilities: Chain of Lakes Park in Winter Haven and Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland.

The Indians have trained in Winter Haven since 1993, but that park was built in 1966 when the Boston Red Sox were training there. When they relocated in 1993 and Cleveland came to town, that left the town without a minor league team, so the only baseball played in town is when the Indians are there. That, coupled with the old school charm of the facilities with its covered seating, views obstructed by support poles, and open-air press box, makes this a great place for a spring training game.

The park is located in a commercial and residential area, with
restaurants and shopping nearby and an assortment of apartments and condos within view just outside centerfield. This location (ownership is considering tearing down the park and building something to generate year-round revenue), along with the Indians desire for a modern facility means time may be limited to see this classic venue.

The Devil Rays were in town sporting their new hunter green uniforms, a decided improvement over the black and purple of past seasons. The Lizard thought they looked like high school jerseys, which actually adds to the charm.

One of the best things about Grapefruit League baseball is the number of luminaries one is likely to see at the ballpark. Mike Schmidt manages a Phillies’ minor league affiliate and can be seen at camp in Clearwater. Yankee greats appear with frequency at Legends Field in Tampa. Eddie Murray coaches for the Indians.

But rarely do fans get the opportunity to see a legend that has been out of baseball for almost 50 years – a player who made his debut in the 1930s. That’s just what you can find almost daily in March here at Winter Haven. Indeed, Hall of Famer Bob Feller was on hand and signing autographs. Darin was excited to be on of the last in line to get a signature, and even had his picture made with Feller. Another rare opportunity thanks to spring training.

Dan’s $15 mini-binoculars also came in very handy here in Winter Haven. Though his wife maligned this purchase, they proved very useful when he and the Lizard needed to get “a closer look.”

After a Devil Rays victory, we had the “Clayton Pecot Memorial Lunch,” traveling just up the road to a Perkins restaurant. The “chocolate chipper” didn't make an appearance, but the Lizard and I did share stories of some of Pecot’s previous spring exploits with everyone else. We miss you Perkins!

We were also pretty sure we overheard one of the waitresses ask our server if “that table of guys was being nice to her.”

“It’s a little rough,” she said motioning at David “Big Jim” Powell, “but their father is nice.” I can't be sure, but that’s how it sounded to us.

Lakeland is just up the road from Winter Haven, but we made the mistake of letting David and Darin have the map. This was to be their last game and we wanted to, as the Lizard put it, “give them a chance to feel like they were in charge. Folks in their age bracket like that.”

Big mistake. These guys somehow managed to turn a ten-minute drive into an hour-long adventure, featuring three separate stops for Darin to ask directions. We still made it in time to see Pudge Rodriguez’s first at bat for his new team, the Detroit Tigers, who were hosting the Reds. (Ken Griffey did not make the trip, presumably because the club was concerned that he might somehow be injured on the drive down).

Rodriguez looks good in a Tiger uniform. Their classic style is
befitting a player of his caliber. He is still the same old Pudge, too. In one at bat, he fouled of some 10-12 pitches before absolutely crushing a ball into the left-center power alley. But high Florida winds knocked down what would have been a sure homer any other night. If he’s going to play every night in Comerica, he may just as well get used to those balls dying out in the alley.

Afterwards, he flashed his trademark smile and shrugged at the first base coach. If Feller is a living legend of days gone by, Pudge is a modern legend, ranking among the great catchers in the history of the game. It’s always a treat to see him.

But my favorite moment from this particular day was watching the Lizard seeing “Most Extreme Elimination” for the first time ever when we got back to the condo. He laughed so hard he was doubled over on the couch.


-JVB

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Detroit Tigers Camp
Lakeland, FL