I miss Florida most in March.
Even in a place where there isn’t a notable winter to emerge from, it’s unmistakably spring in the Sunshine State. March is when even the people who live there year-round put their shorts and flip-flops back on. It’s when they return to beaches and boats. And it’s when my friends in Florida inundate my Facebook newsfeed with photos from spring training games.
While it pains me that I can’t be there for the Grapefruit League exhibitions, I suppose it’s just as well. The Spring Training Experience I grew up with is gone.
I’ve attended spring training games in a handful of places in Florida. Small stadiums with great energy, filled with an air of possibility and optimism for the season ahead. But only one field felt like it was the single place in the whole world where spring training really belonged.
There was no better place to spend an afternoon in March than Al Lang Stadium, a 7,000-seat ballpark on St. Petersburg’s waterfront.
They played baseball in the spring at Al Lang starting in 1923, when the Boston Braves and Babe Ruth’s Yankees called it their home away from home. A new field was built for the Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals in 1947. Since then, Al Lang’s tenants have included the New York Giants, the Mets, the Orioles and, after the Cardinals played their 50th and final season there in 1997, the Rays.
Even beyond Ruth, the list of players who called this place their home field in the spring requires no first names: Mays, Mantle, Gehrig, Musial, Maris and DiMaggio. It’s where Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton shook the winter rust off their fastballs. The 1986 Amazin' Mets of Gooden, Strawberry and Dykstra spent March at Al Lang before embarking on their storied championship season.
For all the talk about the Tampa Bay area’s lackluster support of Major League Baseball -- and there’s been plenty -- this place has brought people out to see the games that don’t even count for nearly 90 years. For about the last 30, one of them was Uncie.
Uncie, pronounced un-key, is Jim Kennedy and, not coincidentally, he’s my uncle. Even though I’m now a relative grownup, I still call him Uncie and so do my friends.
Uncie decided to get serious with spring training in 1980. Between taking the Florida bar exam and getting the results, the biggest baseball fan I’ve ever known decided to test out different seats around.Al Lang Stadium.
Upon choosing his seats along the first base line, Uncie went more than 26 years without missing a single spring training game at Al Lang, which was named for the first St. Pete mayor who brought pro ball to town, if only for a month each year. This attendance streak is even more impressive when you consider that most games take place in the early afternoon and the family Uncie supported added daughters in 1985 and 1988.
Uncie doesn’t invite you to spring training. He subpoenas you. You receive an envelope from his law office, and inside you find a Circuit Court notice. At the top, the name of the case. IN THE MATTER OF THE PITTSBURGH PIRATES VS. THE ST LOUIS CARDINALS. Even in its most recent incarnations, the unrealistic-slash-outdated rules instructed that cell phones and beepers were strictly prohibited, unless you wished to be held “in contempt of spring training.”
When you showed up to a spring training game with Uncie, you felt like you owned the place. You were introduced to all the important people at the stadium. The beer lady. The hot dog guy. The people sitting around us. The guy who managed the stadium. You went home with autographs, maybe a foul ball, and probably a sunburn on your thighs or your feet.
It sounds like any other spring training game, or maybe even any baseball game for that matter, but there was something about seeing the boats and the water past left field and the tiny planes taking off and landing at Albert Whitted Airfield. Something about the seagulls, who Uncie swore could read the scoreboard, because they always showed up en masse in the 8th inning, no matter what time the game started.
There was something about that intimate stadium and casual atmosphere where players stretched and ran sprints in the outfield, all while the game was being played.
There was Rick, the guy across the aisle who we’d see year after year, who spoke -- and it was more like yelling than speaking -- with the rasp and volume of a cartoon pirate: “What’s the matter ump? Did you forget your seeing eye dog?” Rick wore Hawaiian shirts, caked sunscreen on his nose and showed up to games with different leathery women.
And there were the photographers who enamored me. Armed with their telephoto lenses and light meters, these guys were going to be making pictures for baseball cards. Baseball cards! It was pretty much the coolest thing you could do short of being the guys on the cards. He works for Upper Deck? Oh man, that’s the big time.
Since the end of spring training in 2008, there have been no umps to yell at and no players to take photos of. Al Lang Stadium, or Al Lang Field at Progress Energy Park as it’s been called for the last stretch of its existence, has sat empty in March. When the Rays headed 90 minutes south to Port Charlotte, they took March away from Uncie.
And sure, you could go to Tampa for a Yankees game or Clearwater for a Phillies game, or to Dunedin to see the Blue Jays, and Uncie does. But it just isn’t the same.
This year at Al Lang, there are some international exhibition games and a few split squad games that don’t even count in the don’t-count standings of the Grapefruit League. And it’s true that come April, the Rays will have opening day just a dozen blocks away. Uncie will be there game after game, like he was for the 10 years of extreme Devil Rays futility between 1998 and 2007, and as he’s been for the past three seasons cheering on an actual contender. But the domed, air-conditioned, turfed-over dreariness of indoor baseball
couldn’t be further from March afternoons by the bay.
Recently, Uncie became the chairman of St. Petersburg’s city council. I know he loves the city, cares about its future and has a deep sense of civic responsibility. But I want to get my hands on some of those city council meeting agendas to see if luring a new team for spring training comes up. There’s a part of me that believes he’s in it just to find a way to get March back.
-- Jim Darlington is an advertising copywriter in New York City.