Wednesday, April 25, 2018
News Roundup

St. Petersburg College, Clearwater High right at home in historic Jack Russell Stadium

CLEARWATER — The Rolling Stones were only four songs in when they were arrested at Jack Russell Memorial Stadium in 1965. They, along with 3,000 teenagers throwing toilet paper at each other, were disturbing the peace in the North Greenwood neighborhood. The story goes that Keith Richards went back to the Jack Tar Harrison Hotel (now the Fort Harrison) and in the early morning hours woke up with the opening for what would become the British rock group's first No. 1 hit in the United States, (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction.

The stadium hosted other icons over the years, too. During its 50-year run as the epicenter for Philadelphia Phillies spring training, there were the greats from the City of Brotherly Love — Mike Schmidt, Robin Roberts and Steve Carlton, to name a few. Add to that list names from all the visiting teams who entered the gates of Jack Russell and it grows longer with names like Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente.

However, after the Phillies moved to their modern-day digs on Old Coachman Road, the grandstand and much of the infrastructure at Jack Russell were demolished. For the last decade, except for the Winning Inning Baseball Academy, a Christian-based athletic organization that called Jack Russell home for several years, a permanent replacement eluded the city, the longtime owner of the property.

A new era has begun. Thanks to a partnership with several entities contributing time, money and materials, Jack Russell is now the new, permanent home for the baseball teams of both Clearwater High and St. Petersburg College.

Although it is a work in progress, both teams were able to start their 2017 season at the stadium. The main field, a smaller practice field, the clubhouse, the outfield wall and the batting cages are still intact. With the help of community partners, the city, which has invested about $500,000 in the project in the last two years, is adding an additional clubhouse, a second set of batting cages, seating for 1,200 that will stretch from dugout to dugout and installed turf, formerly used in Tropicana Field by the Tampa Bay Rays, on the training field. The other stakeholders include CHS Batter Up Booster Club, the Philadelphia Phillies, the Toronto Blue Jays, the Tampa Bay Rays, Clearwater for Youth, the Pinellas County School District, Clearwater High and St. Petersburg College.

"A private entity could be in here doing something, but to us, community trumps everything,'' said Kevin Dunbar, the recreation and parks director for Clearwater. "We are providing opportunities to play here, to have a baseball experience and to play on a piece of sacred, hallowed land, and to help kids feel part of a team and a community and hopefully develop traits to be good citizens.''

Dunbar remembers a conversation he had long ago with Nick Grasso, who was then the principal of Clearwater High.

"It was somewhere around 1999, when I first started the job,'' he recalled. "Nick talked to me way back then about how he hoped the city could partner with the school when it came to a home baseball field. That's how long the high school has been trying to find something.''

Years later, Grasso, now director of athletics for the school district, also waxes sentimental about the stadium's history.

"So many hall of famers have played there,'' he said. "It's great to see the facility used for this and how the kids will be educated on that tradition, the history of baseball here.''

The original stadium, also home to the Clearwater Bombers, a softball team that won 10 National Amateur Softball Association titles between 1950 and 1973, was named for Jack Erwin Russell, a 1934 American League All-Star member of the Washington Senators who pitched in two World Series When his baseball career was over, he settled in Clearwater, focusing his time on serving the community as a City Council member, chamber of commerce president and advocate for a city baseball stadium.

Ryan Beckman is the baseball coach for St. Petersburg College and former head coach for Calvary Christian. He talked about how as a boy growing up in Dunedin, he learned firsthand the impact baseball had on the area's youth.

"Okay, right now I'm looking at a plaque on the wall of players who came through here (at SPC). I see the names of Howard Johnson, who was drafted by the Detroit Tigers, Tim Teufel (New York Mets) and Seminole standout Bobby Wilson (former Rays catcher),'' he said.

Beckman also pointed out the benefit of being at a stadium in the middle of a busy community. "I think for (future players) it's great the neighborhood can see us. The more people who see us, the more people will know of our program, and when you think of all the stories about the great baseball players, they often start with the simple thing — the first time the player actually saw the game being played.''

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Piper Castillo at [email protected] Follow @Florida_PBJC.

     
     
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