Monday, March 16, 2009

Baseball place No. 29: McKechnie Field; Alternative place No. 29A: Chain of Lakes Park

For a state that didn’t have a major league team until 1993, Florida sure does have a lot of must-see baseball places.

Josh Pagihian keeps us on the Gulf Coast with McKechnie Field in Bradenton as spot No. 29 in his “101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out.”

The field has been a spring training site since 1923, and is one of the most cozy and traditional. It doesn’t even have lights!

The Cardinals were the first train there, and hurler Dizzy Dean liked the place so much that he opened a gas station, and could be found pumping gas when he wasn’t at the ballpark – which is how the team became known as the “Gashouse Gang.”

I’ve never been to McKechnie Field – I really do need to get over to the other coast more! – but I have been to another ancient spring stadium that’s not tremendously far away.

Alternative place No. 29A: Chain of Lakes Park

The equally cozy ballpark in Winter Haven capped off a remarkable three-park day in the spring of 1995, undeniable proof of my parents’ spoiling me.
Part of this was for work.

You remember that spring 1995 was a dark period for the game, when the major leaguers were on strike and the owner toyed with the idea of proceeding through the season with replacement players.

These guys were branded “scabs” and met with all kinds of derision. And while there were some veteran players who fit into that category, it wasn’t so cut-and-dry for others.

There were many career minor-leaguers who where told that if they wanted a paycheck playing baseball, they were going to be playing in these games. And for a lot of these guys, baseball was what they knew, and had always been their way of providing for their families.

One of the players in this situation was Mickey Weston, a pitcher from the Flint area who I spend a lot time with in 1990 as we chronicled his career. Mickey, as nice a person as you will meet, used baseball as the basis for his off-season missionary work.

He had been in different organizations for several years, including the Mets in 1993.
The Tigers were his favorite team growing up, and that’s who offered him a contract as a replacement player. He sort of became the poster boy for guys in this spot, even appearing on the cover of USA Today.

I had planned on making the annual pilgrimage to spring training, and the editors allowed me to catch up with Mickey and interview him about his experiences.

I picked a day that the Tigers were playing the Royals at Baseball City, and I called ahead for credentials. All was good.

Now, Baseball City could be a post to itself, going down as the most disastrous spring training site ever. The park, located in Haines City near Orlando, was first a theme park called Circus World, which we actually went to in the late 1970s. It was fun!

It became Boardwalk and Baseball, a theme park with the revamped Circus World rides and a new stadium, with the Royals signed on.
That incarnation of the theme park went belly up not too much later. The rides were demolished, but the stadium remained. The Royals had a lease, so they had no choice but to stay on the site, now called Baseball City. The Royals fled for Arizona in 2003, and the stadium, too, was torn down.

But I digress. Dad and I showed up at the stadium, and picked up my credential. Dad said, “I’m with him,” and they let him in, too.

We were looking around the visitors’ clubhouse for Mickey to no avail. Ballplayers are such cards, and several promised to find him, and pointed me to another player, none of whom were Weston, who I knew.

Finally, one of the coaches took pity, and told us that Mickey stayed wasn’t pitching, so he stayed behind in Lakeland to work out.

That wasn’t too far, and Dad said we could head over there. But first we took a walk out on the field, not wanting to let good credentials go to waste and all. And there, joking around the batting cage, was Royals soon-to-be Hall-of-Famer George Brett, retired, but in uniform working with younger players.
George Brett was working with players near the cage.

The Tigers folks called ahead to make sure we would be able to get access to the stadium when when we arrived. And sure enough, the staffers happily waved us through and said Mick was in the weight room. This time, Dad had to stay outside.

Mick was on a stationary bike, and greeted me with a warm smile. He said he figured I’d show up at some point, having visited him at his assorted stops after our weekend in Rochester in 1990.

Speaking as he pedaled, Mickey was gracious as always. He said he realized that at age 34, he didn’t have a lot of chances left and wanted to keep pitching. Pitching at on Opening Day at Tiger Stadium was a dream since childhood, and he was promised a year at Toldeo if the strike was settled.

We also spoke about his work that past off-season, traveling to far away countries to preach and conduct baseball clinics.

I wished him luck, left the weight room and found Dad standing in centerfield of Joker Marchant Stadium taking photos. He is fearless. I love that.

And here’s where the major spoiling comes in. Since we were up that way, were there any other games we could attend? I figured I was already pushing Dad to the limits of tolerance by going to two parks, leaving him outside at one of them.

But he likes a good road trip, and there was a game in Winter Haven, which wasn’t too far from Lakeland.

Winter Haven is old Florida, very different from the newer, fancier coastal areas were used to.

And Chain of Lakes Park isn’t as old as McKechnie, but seemed like it. The stadium was built in 1966 and held 7,000 people. Not that there were that many people there. It was an odd spring.

The Red Sox called it home from 1966 until 1992, and the Indians claimed it when their brand new site in Homestead was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew before the team even had a chance to play there.

The Tribe was certainly embraced. Chief Wahoo was painted on a water town near the field. There was some kind of domed building beyond left field. It might have been a water tank. But it was painted orange, complete with a green stem on top, no doubt a nod to the citrus farms around the area.
Look for the giant orange in left field.

We watched the replacement Indians play the replacement Cardinals. Looking at the Cards’ roster today, I don’t see a single name I recognize.

The Indians, however, had some minor-leaguers who went on the play in the majors, including Richie Sexon, Bartolo Colon, Carmelo Martinez and Joe Slusarski. Lance Blakenship was a former prospect.

I also saw Shane Turner, who was a teammate of Weston’s when I did the story in Rochester five years earlier.

We arrived a little late, so I didn’t keep score. I’m not sure who actually played.

The Indians ended up staying in Winter Haven though last season. This is their first year in Goodyear, Ariz. But Chief Wahoo remains on the water tower. The park’s future is in doubt, thought.

Weston went on to have a great year in Toldeo, leading the team with 11 wins and 69 strikeouts, and posting a 2.90 ERA. But he was denied a deserved September. Several other former replacement players were unwelcome in their clubhouses when they got the call to the show, and the Tigers must of have figured with was not worth the trouble.

Mickey deserved better.

And three stadiums in one day remains a personal record!

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