ST. PETERSBURG, Fla — So, I’m here. On the ground, got a car, figuring out a hotel room — the usual routine.
Kinda hard to imagine just how morose it must be have waited for baseball all those years and to be delivered indoor baseball on beautiful days and a team so bad, it’s almost incomprehensible.
The last time I spent any time at all in St. Petersburg was March 1994, when the Orioles were ramping up for the strike season here.
As bad as the Orioles current spring training situation is — and it’s dreadful — the days when Eli Jacobs owned the team were clearly no better.
The Orioles left Miami and Bobby Maduro Stadium right before Memorial Stadium was shut down, mainly because the neighborhood there became untenable. Apparently — and I’ve still never been there — it was dangerous and deplorable, like most of South Florida to be honest.
They spent one full spring training WITHOUT A HOME GAME! They based in Sarasota in a tiny little park, called Twin Lakes Park, and roamed Florida every day.
So, in 1992, they landed in St. Petersburg, about an hour north of Sarasota and 25 minutes south of Tampa.
They played their games at Al Lang Stadium (now renamed Progress Energy Park, much to the chagrin I’m sure of anyone who knew poor ole’ Al, whoever he was!) , which had a Marriott across the street (that’s now a Hilton) and foul balls always found windshields anywhere on the right field side. I saw Juan Gonzalez shatter a hood and a windshield in ’93 when he was with Texas.
Anyway, that ballpark might be one of the nicest I’ve ever watched a game in. Right up against a little harbor in the center of a tiny downtown area, those were my two favorite spring trainings ever.
The Orioles — always screwing up March, even then — actually practiced a this completely dumpy little shack of a field about a mile north of the downtown.
I was told that the “old school” Yankees of Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra used to have their spring trainings there many moons ago (don’t know if it’s true or not?), but it had a few field and the oldest, dirtiest little clubhouse ever. I remember seeing the looks on the faces of Sid Fernandez and Chris Sabo the first time they walked in there after being involved with the Mets and Reds and seeing this joint.
Here’s the rub: the Orioles would PRACTICE at this little dumpy facility, but on days when they played at “home” — at Al Lang Stadium — they would actually dress at the dump and hop on a bus that transported them the mile or so to Al Lang where they would walk off the bus for a “home” game and right into the stadium. Inevitably, when a pitcher like Mike Mussina or a position player like Brady Anderson would leave a Grapefruit game in the 5th inning, they’d have to hitch a ride in their uniforms back to the other complex or wait for the team bus to leave after the 7th inning, transporting players back and forth. IN THEIR UNIFORMS!
It was just like the bullpen pitcher’s car scene in Major League!
(OK, right now, I should tell you that I’m sitting in my favorite old seafood haunt, a little family-owned joint called the Fourth Street Shrimp Store. I had lunch here as often as I could when I left the little ballfield after practice. The entire area has been completely revamped and remodeled and it looks like every house in the neighborhood has been rehabbed and is for sale. Man things REALLY change over 14 years!)
On the way down here, I drove past the Hyatt Westshore, saw Raymond James Stadium where the Ravens RIPPED IT UP well into the night on the morning of Jan. 29, 2001. THAT MIGHT BE MY FAVORITES SPORTS MEMORY ever, so at least with the Orioles being idiots and me making an impromptu trip to Tampa in the midst of a bit of prosperity for the orange birds, there are some VERY good memories of my time here.
(A kitchen guy here at the Shrimp Store just came over to my table and gave me the lowdown on the little crappy park a few blocks from here…says the Devil Rays use it in spring training for B-league Grapefruit games and that the big water tower is still there on the field.)
I’ll tell you how cool spring training was in those days.
I rented a white Lincoln Continental with a couple of my beer buddies back in 1994 and drove all night to get here and showed up at practice at 10 a.m. the next morning.
My friends, who were baseball goobers, were literally standing 3-feet away from Mussina and company doing bullpen sessions. It was LITERALLY a public park and there were only a handful of people hanging around watching a big-league team workout.
Autographs, foul balls, pictures — it was “real” fan’s dream spot to hang in March.
The best part for me as a “working” media member was staying at that Marriott in downtown St. Pete across from Al Lang Stadium.
The Orioles couldn’t dress there because they had no rights to the locker rooms. That was because the St. Louis Cardinals had the use of the entire stadium — it had been their spring home for years.
So, even though Camden Yards was alive and well by that point, the entire area was overrun in a sea of red downtown. The Cardinals or the Orioles played in that stadium every day for six weeks. You almost couldn’t go wrong. Even on the days when the Orioles played games in Fort Myers or Bradenton, the Cardinals would be playing the Red Sox or Phillies. Some days, BOTH teams would play — a 1 p.m. and a 7 p.m. game! I barely needed to roll outta bed and one year I had a room that I could just sit in all week and watch games without leaving my bed!
It’s almost 15 years later and the Orioles are STILL without a legitimate major-league home for spring training. They are STILL shuttling their major and minor league players for two months across the state of Florida, not to mention any scout or front office person who wants to evaluate the organization in its totality.
Since then almost every team in MLB has found a permanent home or a place in the sun in Arizona. But not the Orioles!
Incidentally, I remember having lunch with Joe Foss one time in the mid-1990’s and me and my WNST GM Paul Kopelke were trying to school him on the finer points of how the Orioles should be taking their “rights” on radio and TV in house, and they’d make more money.
Foss scoffed at us, for the most part. And I DISTINCTLY remember bringing up spring training and the Disney complex in Orlando, only to be told that “there wasn’t enough money to be made there.” And, I’m telling you, that was like 1996!
Instead they continue to rot and waste away in Fort Lauderdale.
But, again, I wanna think “happy” thoughts in Florida today, and my shrimp basket here at Fourth Street is making me happy.
Tonight I will journey into the Orioles’ clubhouse (I think?) for the first time since April 2004, when that idiot Lee Mazzilli was managing the Orioles.
Here’s my deal:
I want to do my work, get information about the game and the team from players, coaches and managers and report it to the fans of the Orioles and the WNST listeners and readers.
And I don’t want to be lied to by people in suits who work in their front office who protect an owner and a front office that clearly doesn’t want to answer legitimate questions from the people of Baltimore, the media or the fans of the Orioles.
People ask me all the time about how I “get along” with players on the Orioles, since it’s pretty apparent through my work with the Ravens and many other pro sports teams that I haven’t really had any problem getting along with athletes or organizations outside of The Warehouse.
Sam Perlozzo has always been a complete class act. I haven’t spoken to Sam in three years.
Leo Mazzone was ALWAYS the coolest guy on earth. I think he did my show every single time I ever asked him, and that was always before a World Series game from the dugout at Fulton County Stadium or Yankee Stadium or Jacobs Field. He was a Marylander and so was I. That was all you needed with Leo, was to mention Maryland and Baltimore and crab cakes. He was a super good guy!
It’s going to be weird walking into an Oriole clubhouse without Elrod Hendricks. Even though I was at his funeral, and I know that he’s gone, it’s still something I’ve never witnessed. He was such a good guy and a joy to be around, and he ALWAYS hinted to me all of the “truths” of baseball and the organization. Elrod was a straight-shooter, which apparently made him an enemy to many in the organization who sided with Angelos and his henchmen. And clearly, the present players showed Elrod ZERO respect by passing on his funeral (still an act that I find personally reprehensible!).
I literally needed to put the 2007 roster in front of me to figure out how many of the current Orioles I’ve ever met, come in contact with or dealt with.
And I realized quickly that I don’t know most of these guys.
I had Chris Gomez on a few times when he was with the Padres in 1998 before the World Series. VERY nice guy!
I see Miguel Tejada around town but I don’t know him at all. I just know he said he was going to live in Baltimore and do charitable things and make an impact, and now in his fourth season, I haven’t seen one iota of that “work” or “commitment.”
All I see and hear is that he does/doesn’t want to be an Oriole, and who the hell could blame him? He left Oakland for this mess? I’d be pissed if I were him too!
(One other Tejada note: I will ALWAYS respect him for his treatment of the Free The Birds clan in the upper deck last Sept. 21. He ACKNOWLEDGED the crowd of “real” Orioles fans and that will ALWAYS be cool!) I root FOR Miguel Tejada!
I had Nick Markakis on my show the day he was drafted by the Orioles. I’ve never met him.
Jay Gibbons and Brian Roberts are two of the really good guys on team, always pleasant and accommodating and professional. They are class acts!
Melvin Mora is Venezuelan, so he can do no wrong in my book. And he has a zillion kids, cause I’ve seen them all in strollers at Camden Yards. He was always a nice man with an easy smile. Last time I spoke to him was at the All Star Game in 2003 in Chicago. He was in the same dugout with Luis Aparicio that day. There was a little Venezuelan connection going on!
John Parrish, who I ALWAYS root for, was always among the brat pack of pitchers five years ago — Matt Riley, Josh Towers, all those guys — good dudes, if not the most consistent performers! Parrish was always a very regular guy, loved sports and competing.
I interviewed Adam Lowen and Erik Bedard a few times several years ago, but I don’t know them a wit, really, although Bedard’s reputation as “difficult” precedes him.
So, it’s off to Tropicana Field for me.
It will be interesting to see what tonight holds for me.
I’m definitely going to find the “heckler” who many of you have written me about.
I’m definitely going to have a hot dog.
And I’m going to enjoy a MLB baseball game inside a tent on an 80-degree night in Tampa with about 3,500 of my closest friends on a Tuesday night.
I just hope this was worth missing a night in my own bed and the Liars Luncheon in Owings Mills.
Off to the park I go…
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