|Where Have You Gone, Al Bumbry?|
|Written by Gaspar González - BT Contributor|
Once a charming South Florida fixture, spring training baseball is now big business, and nowhere to be found locally
Growing up in the 1970s and early 1980s in Miami, I had a favorite month: March. It had little to do with the picture perfect days or impending spring break from school. Rather, it was because March always meant spring training was coming. (Pitchers and catchers, as they do now, reported in February, but teams began playing games in March.)
The Baltimore Orioles for years played their spring games in Miami Stadium, once a gem of a minor-league park that, by the 1970s, was beginning to show its age. The New York Yankees were literally just up the highway, in Fort Lauderdale. A little farther north, the Montreal Expos (today the Washington Nationals) and Atlanta Braves trained in West Palm Beach. Those willing to drive all the way to Vero Beach, as my father might have put it, could see the Los Angeles Dodgers play in historic Dodgertown.
As it so happens, my childhood coincided with an era in which all five of those teams were pennant contenders. (Yes, even the Expos, who made it to the National League Championship Series in 1981.) For baseball fans, there was no better place to be in March.
For those young enough to wonder what could possibly be so exciting about exhibition games played in tiny, aging ballparks, a brief history lesson: There was once a time, in the not so distant past, when there was no ESPN; no cable channels of any kind, for that matter. Living in a city with no Major League team, all you got were two baseball broadcasts a week -- one on Saturday afternoon, the other on Monday night. That’s it.
If you were a kid growing up in South Florida then, big-league ballplayers lived mainly inside your TV set. Except for spring, when they materialized in the flesh, like Shoeless Joe in Field of Dreams, only instead of trotting out onto a cornfield in Iowa, they came here.
My dad and I would almost always try to catch the Orioles and Yankees when the latter came to Miami. Both were laden with stars. The Yankees had Reggie Jackson, Ron Guidry, and, later, Dave Winfield. The “hometown” Orioles had Jim Palmer and Eddie Murray, joined in the spring of 1982 by a 21-year-old rookie named Cal Ripken, who people said was going to be pretty good.
They also had a diminutive, fleet centerfielder named Al Bumbry, who, despite second billing, was the guy who made the O’s go, spraying hits, stealing bases, and, inevitably, coming around to score. In spring training, Bumbry was forever smiling. Later, I learned he’d been in Vietnam, seeing enough action to earn a Bronze Star.
Maybe that explains his enthusiasm; nobody dies in baseball. Whatever the reason, his attitude was infectious. Buzzing with exuberance every spring, “The Bee” helped make March ballgames the sporting highlight of the year, at least for me.
So you’d think I’d be psyched about getting out to some spring games this month. But I’m not. It doesn’t have to do with being older or not being as much of a baseball fan as I once was. I still love the sport. No, the problem is that so few teams come to South Florida for spring training now.
Where once the majority of clubs played here, in the so-called Grapefruit League, now only about half do, with the other half choosing Arizona’s Cactus League for their spring training. The teams closest to us? The St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins, who share a facility in Jupiter, more than an hour’s drive away. Gone are the Orioles (Sarasota), Yankees (Tampa), Braves (Disney World), and Dodgers (all the way to Glendale, Arizona).
The reason for the changes of address, not surprisingly, is economics. Beginning in the 1990s, towns in Arizona and Florida began bidding against each other for the privilege of hosting spring training, offering to build Major League teams spanking new ballparks, if only they would relocate.
One of these was Homestead, which spent $20 million on a new stadium to lure the Cleveland Indians in 1993. Hurricane Andrew got there first; the Indians, not at all: The Tribe opted for a ten-year lease in Winter Haven, and currently spends the spring in Goodyear, Arizona. The stadium in Homestead was rebuilt and has mostly sat empty, never becoming a spring training venue.
It’s a cautionary tale, or would be, if small cities cared to pay attention. Instead, they’re too busy trying to lure teams, or in some cases, collect them. Most recently, Fort Myers, which already hosts the Minnesota Twins and Boston Red Sox (and where a bond issue financed construction of a new $80 million stadium for the Sox), has made overtures to the Nationals, who are looking to leave Viera, Florida.
Millionaire owners looking for a handout? Cities desperate for “big league” status footing the bill for baseball stadiums? That’s not spring training. In Miami, we call that the regular season.
Volume 15, Issue 2, April 2017
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