Florida's Best Baseball Sites

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Enhance your spring training vacation with a visit to these hidden treasures from our National Pastime; an excerpt from the book "Roadside Baseball"

For the true baseball fan, there is nothing quite like a visit to spring training. You see Major League baseball being played as up close as you probably ever will. You can study the nuances like never before, kids collect autographs in bunches and a foul ball seems to come close every two minutes.

It's America's Pastime brought down to its most personal, accessible level, and for both purists and casual fans alike, there is a special magic to baseball enjoyed during spring training.

In my book "Roadside Baseball", I documented hundreds of places around the country where baseball history happened, from former stadium sites to birthplaces; plaques, markers, monuments--you name it. Many of these sites can be found in Florida. So if you visit spring training this year, think about taking a few detours to experience some baseball history. One of Babe Ruth's longest home runs, Jackie Robinson's debut, The Ted Williams Retrospective Museum & Library--they're all part of Roadside Baseball and I think they'll add a special layer to any baseball trip (not to mention the great photo ops!).

Jackie Robinson Ballpark (formerly called City Island Ballpark)

City: Daytona Beach Location: 105 E. Orange Avenue, 386-258-3106

This historic ballpark can claim a milestone moment in American history. City Island Ballpark was the place where Jackie Robinson, on March 17, 1946, began his professional career as a member of the Montreal Royals, a Brooklyn Dodgers Class AAA farm team that trained in Daytona Beach. The spring training game between the Royals and the Dodgers was the first integrated major league game of the 20th century and a preview of Robinson's major league debut in 1947. The ballpark was renamed in Robinson's honor in 1990 and a statue bearing his likeness is located at the entrance. Jackie Robinson Park was built in 1930 and has served as temporary home to many Hall of Famers. In November 1998, the ballpark was listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its status and contributions to the civil rights movement. Today, the ballpark is home of the Daytona Cubs, a Chicago Cubs Class A farm team that plays in the Florida State League.

Tate High School

City: Gonzalez Location: 1771 Tate Road, 850-937-2300

Since 1954, 45 players from Tate High School have been drafted by major league teams, including Hall of Famer Don Sutton, who pitched in the major leagues for 23 years, earned four All-Star Game selections and pitched in four World Series. Other Tate High School products include Jay Bell and Travis Fryman. A nearby billboard touts the major leaguers the school has produced and there's an exhibit within the school.

Ted Williams Retrospective Museum & Library, Inc.

City: Hernando Location: 2455 North Citrus Hills Blvd., 352-527-6566

On February 9, 1994, a few blocks from where Ted Williams lived, the Ted Williams Museum was dedicated. The museum is laid out like a baseball diamond--each base representing a different chapter in the Splendid Splinter's legendary career. First base begins with Williams playing for the Minneapolis Millers and the San Diego Padres before arriving in the major leagues with the Boston Red Sox. Second base documents Williams' military exploits during World War II and the Korean War. The theme continues, chronicling Williams' spectacular career, 1960 retirement, managerial career and beyond. Williams memorabilia takes up most of the outer rim of the diamond, with inside space devoted to such other players as Cal Ripken and Don Mattingly. On a platform in the middle of the diamond (where the pitcher's mound would be) is a statue of Williams, immortalized in his classic batting stance. In the "Hitter's Wing," there are displays honoring Williams' choices as the 20 greatest hitters of all time, a list that includes Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, Frank Robinson and Babe Ruth.

In addition to the numerous displays, visitors can see thousands of pieces of memorabilia, much of it from private collectors, and video clips showing classic moments involving Williams and other legends. The museum holds induction ceremonies every year to honor Williams and other worthy players from the past and present. In Williams' own words, "Through the Ted Williams Museum and Hitters Hall of Fame, we hope to build a lasting monument, an architectural tribute to what I think is the single most difficult thing in all of sports; hitting a baseball. We hope the Museum will become a place millions of baseball fans will visit and enjoy for generations to come. I hope you'll join us as we transform our dreams into reality."

More than 50,000 fans visit the museum annually and it already has become one of the true shrines of baseball. Enhancing the displays are the ideas submitted by the man many consider the greatest pure hitter who ever lived.

Tinker Field

City: Orlando Location: 287 South Tampa Avenue, 407-849-2001

Though the current ballpark was built in 1963, pro baseball has been played on this field since 1914. It served as the spring training facility for several major league teams as well as the home for Florida State League and Southern League teams until being abandoned in 2000. The stadium is named for Hall of Famer Joe Tinker (of "Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance" fame), who lived in Orlando after retiring and managed Orlando's first semi-professional team. Interestingly, several hundred grandstand seats from Washington's Griffith Stadium are used at Tinker Field and a monument to Senator's owner Clark Griffith stands out front. (The Senators used to train here.) The Citrus Bowl football stadium is built ridiculously close to Tinker, almost touching the right field exterior wall. In the late 1980s, Boston's Sam Horn hit a monster shot that cleared the exterior of Tinker Field and landed in the football stadium.

The Swain Apartments

City: St. Petersburg Location: 1511 22nd Street South

In the 1950s and '60s, Dr. Robert James Swain, Jr., a prominent African-American dentist in St. Petersburg, helped lead the struggle against segregation in the city. This area was the heart of the African-American community during the civil rights era and the apartments on 22nd Street housed many of the black major league players of the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Yankees when they arrived in St. Petersburg for spring training. Blacks in that period were often denied housing in areas where their white teammates would stay. Built in 1956, the apartments offered a sanctuary while Swain and other leaders fought through the system to expose the racial injustice. Attitudes started to change after 1961 and the Cardinals eventually made an effort to integrate their housing. The Yankees already had relocated their spring facilities to Fort Lauderdale. The former Swain Apartment building is still used for commercial purposes and was recently granted landmark status for its significant role in the American civil rights era.

Progress Energy Park at Al Lang Field

City: St. Petersburg Location: 230 First St. S., 727-825-3284

Al Lang Field is named after St. Petersburg's former mayer, the local "father of baseball" who provided the impetus for bringing spring training to this Gulf Coast community. For more than 80 years, Al Lang has been a spring training home. The Philadelphia Phillies played here from 1916-21; the Boston Braves from 1922-24; the New York Yankees (Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio) from 1925-37; the St. Louis Cardinals (Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock) from 1938-97, and currently, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. During the summer, the field serves as home to the St. Petersburg Devil Rays, a Class A farm team for Tampa Bay. A marker in the shape of home plate stands just north of the stadium, detailing some of the field's rich history.

One of Babe Ruth's longest home runs

City: Tampa Location: Pepin-Rood Stadium (former site of Plant Field), University of Tampa, 401 West Kennedy Boulevard, 813-253-3333

In 1919, during an April 4 spring training game between the defending World Series-champion Red Sox and the New York Giants, young Babe Ruth hit one of his most memorable home runs out of Plant Field. George Smith, pitching for the Giants, fired a fastball that the Red Sox pitcher-turned-slugger crushed an estimated 587 feet--purported by some to be the longest ball ever hit in baseball history. Ruth's home run was not the only significant moment or event that occurred here. One of the most memorable was a barnstorming football game between Red Grange's Chicago Bears and a pickup team led by Jim Thorpe called the Tampa Cardinals. More recently, hurdler Roger Kingdom won a national championship at reconfigured Pepin-Rood Stadium on his way to winning a second Olympic gold medal. The stadium also has been used by the Tampa Smokers of the International League and the Cincinnati Reds as a spring training site. Pepin-Rood Stadium, now considered the finest collegiate soccer venue in NCAA Division II, has been the site of two national championship finals. A nearby plaque commemorates the blast.

Dodgertown

City: Vero Beach Location: 3901 26th St., 772-569-4900

This is easily the most historic spring training site in major league baseball. The Dodgers were lured to the area in 1948 by Bud Holman, director of Eastern Airlines, who persuaded Brooklyn farm director Buzzy Bavasi to economize and bring together all 30-plus Dodgers farm teams to one central facility. In 1952, the current Dodgertown, featuring Holman Stadium, was constructed in the city of Vero Beach. Dodgertown was a former Naval air base and Brooklyn players originally were housed in former Navy barracks. When Holman Stadium opened in 1953, 1,500 of its steel chairs were former seats used at Brooklyn's Ebbets Field. The original barracks eventually were replaced by more comfortable villas (90 of them), many of which are still in use. Dodgertown also has added 27 holes of golf, 70 acres of citrus groves and Safari Pines Estates, a residential development. Although most of the compound has changed significantly since 1948, this spring training "Dodger Blueprint"  remains one of the true archetypes of a successful training facility and also one of the best places for fans to visit and get a sense of what the preseason is really like. During the regular season, Holman Stadium is home to the Vero Beach Dodgers of the Class A Florida State League and the Gulf Coast Dodgers of the Rookie Gulf Coast League.

Chris Epting is the author of "Roadside Baseball", published by Sporting News, copyright 2003.

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