For Clearwater, both are the 'home team'

Sporting two hats is Kenny Schauer, owner of Lenny’s Restaurant near Bright House Networks Field, the Philadelphia Phillies spring training site. Many players eat at Lenny’s. Schauer is picking the Phils in five in the “Pinellas County World Series.”

JIM DAMASKE | Times

Sporting two hats is Kenny Schauer, owner of Lenny’s Restaurant near Bright House Networks Field, the Philadelphia Phillies spring training site. Many players eat at Lenny’s. Schauer is picking the Phils in five in the “Pinellas County World Series.”

CLEARWATER — Baseball fans in this city are calling it the Pinellas County World Series, and it is sorely testing their allegiances.

You see, Clearwater was a Phillies town for decades before the Tampa Bay Rays were even an idea. It's been the Phillies' spring training home since 1947.

On the Clearwater end of the Courtney Campbell Parkway, an official city sign says Go Rays while another says Go Phillies. At the team's gleaming new $30-million ballpark off U.S. 19, Phillie "phanatics" watch spring training and minor league games while chomping on Philly cheesesteaks in a Florida tiki hut overlooking left field.

Some Phillies players have second homes here, and the team is putting up hundreds of its employees in Clearwater Beach hotels during the World Series. So you'll forgive the people of Clearwater if they sound a little conflicted.

"This is going to be very strange," said City Council member Paul Gibson. "Maybe what I do is, I buy two shirts and cut them in half and put Phillies on one side and Rays on the other, then rotate the two halves back and forth.

"Get two hats with a bill in each direction … Just spin it around, right?"

The Phillies' spring training has a $35-million economic impact on the city annually. But most people in Clearwater — everyone from the mayor to blue-collar guys eating lunch in sports bars — are ultimately rooting for the Rays.

Mayor Frank Hibbard, who's an investment banker in his 9-to-5 job, is actually going to shave his head in a Mohawk hairstyle, fulfilling a pledge he made on a local radio show.

"It's a good problem to have," he said of the city's dual allegiances. "Now I know how Venus and Serena Williams' father must feel when they're playing each other."

City Manager Bill Horne, who wore a Rays jersey and Phillies cap at a recent City Council meeting, likens this to a Yankees-Mets or Cubs-White Sox series.

The Phillies' history in Clearwater goes back nearly to World War II. Their old spring training site at Jack Russell Stadium welcomed visitors like Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays.

These days they train at 4-year-old Bright House Networks Field, where thousands of Philadelphia fans make the thousand-mile trek from up north every spring.

Lots of them eat at nearby Lenny's Restaurant, where Phillies paraphernalia plasters the walls. Owner Kevin Schauer says he admires the Rays' "David and Goliath story" but he knows where his loyalties lie: "Every morning, I have to cook for the Phillies." He can tell you what the second baseman likes in his omelets.

Rays or Phillies? This question is being debated all over Clearwater. At lunchtime Monday, two construction workers sat in the dark interior of Norton's Southside Sports Bar on Drew Street, consuming Marlboros and Bud Lights.

"It's great that both our teams are in there," said Jeffrey Sick, who likes the Phillies and once got hired to replace the roof on their batting cages.

At the next bar stool over, Bob Torelli shot him a look: "The Rays, man. You gotta go with the Rays. Sorry, Phillies."

Still, there's definitely a faction of local fans who are saying, "Sorry, Rays."

"If I were to lean a little bit, it would be toward the Phillies," said Ken Hamilton, owner of Clearwater Beach's Palm Pavilion restaurant.

Sure, he's a Rays season ticket holder and still has his ticket from their first-ever game at Tropicana Field. But he also has season tickets for the Phillies' spring training and for the Clearwater Threshers, their local farm team. And he was a local Phillies bat boy in the '60s.

"I'm so excited I can't stand it," he said. "This is like the dream ticket all the way, top to bottom. I don't feel that we can lose."

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4160.

For Clearwater, both are the 'home team' 10/20/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 23, 2008 8:34pm]

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