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Spring training ritual spans 4 generations, 55 years

ST. PETERSBURG

David Simmerly comes two hours early to his shady seats in Section 107 at Al Lang Field. ¶ From the 28th row, the Maryville, Tenn., resident watches batting practice through his bifocals, his blue Tampa Bay Rays cap sits low. ¶ "I don't like to miss a thang," he says in a quiet twang.

Simmerly started coming to spring training in St. Petersburg 55 years ago, a boy with his father.

The 66-year-old now brings his own sons and grandchildren. Four generations, it's been.

As you listen to all the hubbub — and controversy — about this being the last spring training season in St. Petersburg after 94 years, and, oh, dear, what's going to happen to Al Lang Field and Tropicana Field, there's Simmerly.

For him, spring training is about much more than balls and bats and politics and economic development.

It's about family. Tradition. The little diversions in life that keep us bound to those we love.

• • •

A sunny, Sunday afternoon. The Rays vs. the Detroit Tigers. A perfect baseball day. The smell of beer and hot dogs mixes with sweat and sea air.

Game time approaches.

A Yale University a cappella group sings The Star-Spangled Banner.

Simmerly stands for one of the last times at Al Lang Field, takes off his ball cap and crosses it over his heart.

His baseball fever began in the spring of 1953.

His father, Jess, a machinist in Alcoa, Tenn., had a thing for baseball.

He brought his wife and son to St. Petersburg for one week's vacation to watch spring training. Both the Yankees and the Cardinals were here then.

It became an annual tradition. "That's what we looked forward to all year," David Simmerly says.

His dad would mingle with game officials, even the ballpark's namesake, Al Lang.

Simmerly became a bat boy for the visiting teams.

He has pictures of Jackie Robinson and Mickey Mantle. An autograph from Stan Musial.

He remembers the iconic baseball announcer Harry Caray walking to the press box, buying ice cream for most everyone in his path.

Simmerly went on to play a few years of college ball before becoming a high school baseball coach. He married and fathered two sons.

Grandpa began taking them out of school for two or three weeks at a time to bring them to St. Petersburg for games.

When the Cardinals and Mets were both training here, "there were times we'd have hot dogs for lunch and hot dogs for dinner," recalls David's oldest son, Jerry, now 38.

As the senior Simmerly aged, father bringing son to spring training became son bringing father.

Their final trip together was in 1999, the year before Jess Simmerly, consummate baseball fan, died at age 89.

• • •

Bottom of the first inning.

"You can't get better seats," David Simmerly says. "You come long enough, you learn."

They seem a little high actually, towering between home and first base, but they stay shady thanks to the concrete overhang. As a bonus, the seats offer a view of the boats in the water just past third.

Simmerly can't help but look at the water every 10 minutes or so.

Next to him is his son Jerry, a bank chief executive, and his 2-year-old grandson Casey, named for the legendary Yankees manager Casey Stengel, who used to frequent the city during spring training.

Three Simmerlys. Three ball caps.

Jerry bought a condo here five years ago so Dad could attend spring training without long hotel stays.

"I enjoy baseball," Jerry says, "but I enjoy watching him enjoy it more."

At the top of the second inning, half a dozen people walk up the steps and jostle their way down the row behind the family.

David Simmerly smirks: "I can't understand why a person comes to the ballpark 30 minutes late."

• • •

Fourth inning. A foul ball flies a few feet to the left of Simmerly. He yells: "Heads! Heads! Heads!" and covers his own.

There's no way he'd try to catch a fly ball barehanded. He coached high school teams for 37 years. He knows.

A man a few seats away catches it and tosses it to a boy with a gloved hand below.

"Wake up, kids!" Simmerly laughs.

Simmerly lists the attributes of spring training.

The closeness between the players and the fans. The grilled hot dogs. The seagulls. The relaxed, family-friendly atmosphere.

Bottom of the eighth, and Jerry drapes his sleeping 2-year-old over his shoulder and carries him to the car.

David Simmerly stays. He points out a white marking on rightfield painted with the year 2012.

That's where home plate would be if a $450-million stadium is built as a new home for the Rays.

He was disappointed when he heard the team was moving spring training to Port Charlotte next year.

Will he go? "I don't know. I don't know," he says. "I'll go down once just to see it."

He's resigned to the end of spring training in St. Petersburg. He tries to focus on the Rays' proposal to build a replacement for Tropicana Field.

"I think the Rays are doing the right thing," he says. "It's a big league town now. My one hope is I get to live long enough to see it."

The game ends. The Rays win 7-2. David Simmerly walks through the crowd to the car where his son and grandson wait. Three generations, it is.

Melanie Ave can be reached at mave@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8813.

Spring training ritual spans 4 generations, 55 years 03/25/08 [Last modified: Friday, March 28, 2008 8:46am]
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