Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Baseball Place No. 26: Ted Williams Museum and Hitters Hall of Fame; Alternative Place No. 26A: Labatt Park

Until last season, the idea of moving anything to Tropicana Field so more people could see it would have baseball fans rolling on the floor laughing.

That should give you an idea of how bad attendance was at the Ted Williams Museum and Hitters Hall of Fame in Hernando, Fla.

But now that the Rays are American League champs and fans are actually showing up at the Trop, Ted’s museum is getting some exposure.

The museum has Williams’ memorabilia and displays about 20 great hitters.

Josh Pahigian picks the newly located Hall as spot No. 26 in his “101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out.”

I’ve never been to St. Petersburg, but I did meet Ted Williams. That takes us to:

Alternative Spot No. 26A: Labatt Park in London, Ontario

Note the big clouds moving in.

OK, I’m not talking about Ted Williams the Red Sox star. Will and I met Ted Williams, the Seattle Mariners prospect.

We ventured from Flint to London, Ont. to check out Labatt Park and had one of the wildest days we’ve ever had at a ballpark.

We arrived in London under some big puffy clouds floating overhead.

Labatt is neat little park, with covered grandstands along third base and behind home plate. There weren’t much in the way of concessions, but the team had white-topped tents along a grassy area selling food.

It looked like we might get a little rain as the game progressed. Then big dark clouds appeared -- then the deluge. It seemed to go from sprinkle to downpour is seconds, sending fans scrambling to the covered areas.

The ground crew struggled to get the tarp on the mound, much less the whole infield.

We’re talking thunder, lightening, walls of water and wailing winds, among the most intense storms I’ve seen.

And then, as soon as it came, the storm stopped, and there was brilliant sunshine. It was like someone flicked the weather switch.

That gave everyone time to survey the damage. The white tents outside were blown down. The foul lines and batter’s box were just gone. And there was no power.

Players started wandering out as the crew worked on the field.

It was kind of fun seeing what baseball players do when they’re killing time. One player would get into assorted batting stances, and asked his teammates – and some fans – to guess who he was imitating. I correctly guessed a Dave Magadan stance!

Chris Chambliss was the London Tigers manager, and he walked along the grandstand signing autographs.

The visiting team was the Williamsport Bills. I asked manager Rich Morales what exactly a Bill was. “It’s what we owe,” he said, matter-of-factly.

Then along came Mr. Williams. Not quite the splendid splinter, but he could run. We were there in July, and he already had 34 swipes and was soon promoted to Triple-A Calgary.

He happily signed a baseball card for me.

After a while, the field was ready again, and all that was missing was the power. The game resumed anyway, the only time I’ve seen a professional baseball game without a scoreboard, player announcements and other things that come blaring at your. It was pretty nice.
Will checks out the damage.

The Tigers ended up winning 3-0, though future Met Rico Brogna struckout swinging in all three of his at-bats. Our new friend Ted didn’t do too much better, going 1-for-4, and got caught trying to steal third.

Williams never made it beyond Triple-A, moving from the Mariners’ system to the Tigers’.
Meeting Teddy Ballgame's namesake.

He played seven seasons, not counting a one-game appearance for Wichita in 1995 after missing all of 1994. Not sure what happened in that one game. He’s credited with a run, but not an at-bat.

Williams finished with a .247 career average, but 349 steals, which is impressive.

As for the ballpark, I didn’t realize until much later – like on Monday – of its rich history.

Labatt Park is debated to be the oldest continually operating baseball grounds in the world, with history that dates back to 1877.

It was named Tecumseh Park until 1936, and was a frequent stop for barnstorming teams that included Satchel Paige and the House of David.

Two years after retiring, Denny McLain made a comeback of sorts playing for the London Majors. He pitched only nine games, but played shortstop, first base and catcher.

And future Hall-of-Famer Fergie Jenkins pitched two years for the Majors in 1984-85,after retiring from the Major Leagues, commuting from his nearby home.

The Tigers didn’t stay too long, arriving in 1989 and bailing after the 1993 season. Today the stadium is used by semi-pro teams.

We also thought it was odd that despite the name, the team was prohibited from selling beer during games because the stadium was in a city park. But after that experience, we couldn't say it was a "dry" field.

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