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Governor's Baseball Dinner celebrates 100 years of baseball in Florida

ST. PETERSBURG

In 1912, the owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates dismissed a sales pitch to train here by Al Lang, the man who would become mayor of St. Petersburg.

But in 1914 — 100 years ago — Lang struck gold when he persuaded manager Branch Rickey to bring the St. Louis Browns here with an offer of free lodging. The first game was played in Coffee Pot Park, writes Nevin D. Sitler in his book Warm Wishes from Sunny St. Pete. The Cubs traveled across the bay by boat from Tampa and won 3-2.

So began the local roots of the Florida Grapefruit League and spring training in St. Petersburg and Pinellas County. On Thursday evening that rich century of baseball was celebrated at the 2014 Governor's Baseball Dinner held on the outfield at Tropicana Field.

The evening's nostalgic look back came with a resolute look forward and a message: The days of the rival Arizona Cactus League poaching teams from the Florida Grapefruit League are over.

"We've stopped the migration of teams to Arizona, and now we're working on bringing back a team from Arizona," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, from the podium at the Trop dinner.

Gov. Rick Scott agreed, saying incentives are now in place to help Florida cities keep the baseball teams they have and perhaps recoup some of the ones they have lost. The state incentive package mimics what Arizona used to poach the Cleveland Indians from Winter Haven in 2009 and the Cincinnati Reds from Sarasota in 2008.

Scott attended the event with his wife, Ann — "a better baseball player than I was," the governor confessed. Scott shared how he grew up cheering for the local Kansas City Athletics and listening to the St. Louis Cardinals via a distant AM radio station. He even spent one of his Florida "working days" as governor selling shortcake and scraping mud from baseball cleats at Joker Marchant Stadium, the Lakeland spring training home of the Detroit Tigers.

The 30 Major League baseball franchises are now perfectly split. Fifteen teams play in Florida, and 15 play in Arizona.

Today's Florida Grapefruit League appears reasonably healthy and is part of the Sunshine State's massive tourism industry. Last year, Florida's spring training games drew 1,638,457 fans who attended 247 games. It was the second consecutive season of more than 1.6 million fans.

In an interview at the baseball dinner, John Webb, president of the Florida Sports Foundation, said the Florida Grapefruit League has five teams with short-term leases remaining on their spring training stadiums. But most of the teams here are signed for the long haul.

Said Webb: "It feels good."

Just don't expect Arizona to let its recruitments to the Cactus League get plucked back too easily.

One Florida group tried to recruit the Chicago Cubs to leave Arizona for a new facility near Naples. Arizona responded with a brand new Cubs Park in the town of Mesa, backed by $99 million in funding.

As if baseball fever was not high enough at the Trop, even Thursday's dinner entertainment — impersonator Frank Caliendo — came ready to reminisce. When younger, the comedian played outfield in an AAU game at Al Lang Stadium. And in 1964 his father played for the minor league Sarasota Sun Sox.

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com.

Governor's Baseball Dinner celebrates 100 years of baseball in Florida 02/13/14 [Last modified: Thursday, February 13, 2014 11:28pm]
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