TAMPA — During the days before Al Lopez Field was demolished in 1989, Mario Núñez missed his chance to collect souvenirs — jars of infield dirt, seats, fixtures.
Núñez, a regular at the field, was in the skies working as a flight attendant. Now, at 58, he has launched a hunt for what he considers the ultimate memento of the park — a large, hand-painted illustration of the park's namesake.
It shows Lopez, the Tampa native and baseball Hall of Fame player and manager, as a player, crouched in catcher's position. The circular illustration hung in front of the main stadium sign.
"It was our Big Ben," Núñez said. "When we drove by we looked at it. It should be in a museum or somewhere public. Let's find it and do that."
The search has been inspired by the World Series season of the Chicago Cubs, a team that hadn't made it there since 1945. As Núñez watched games on television from the team's storied Wrigley Field, he is reminded of Al Lopez Field.
"Wrigley is still that classic ballpark," Núñez said. "It has made me nostalgic for my youth and where I watched games."
Because of the size of the Al Lopez illustration, more than 20 feet in diameter, and its position at the top of the stadium, it is unlikely a fan made off with it while grabbing up souvenirs before demolition, Núñez said.
Still, "it definitely wasn't there when the wrecking ball came. Everyone knows that. Someone has it."
Now host of the history program The Tampa Natives Show on Tampa Bay Arts & Education Network, Núñez has been asking viewers to assist in the search.
Neither the Tampa Bay History Center nor the soon-to-be-opened Tampa Baseball Museum has the illustration or knows where it is.
He hasn't heard back from the Tampa Sports Authority, which controls the property at today's Raymond James Stadium complex where Al Lopez Field stood. Calls and emails from the Tampa Bay Times also went unanswered.
"It shouldn't be hidden in a home or office or a warehouse," Núñez said. "It belongs to all of us. It is a direct link to our history."
Lopez, the first major leaguer born in Tampa, played catcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Pittsburgh Pirates and Cleveland Indians.
"This was long before Major League Baseball was here," said Rodney Kite-Powell, curator of the Tampa Bay History Center. "Al Lopez Field was our connection to the big leagues. I can still hear the sound of a foul ball landing on the curved aluminum roof and the clanging it made."
The stadium opened in 1954 and initially hosted spring training for the Chicago White Sox. Lopez was hired as White Sox manager in 1957 and coached there.
In 1960, the Cincinnati Reds replaced the White Sox as spring training tenants.
Núñez recalled riding his bike to the stadium. If he couldn't get in, he'd stand in the parking lot, chase foul balls and wonder whether they were hit by Reds stars Pete Rose or Johnny Bench.
"It was a rite of passage," Núñez said.
The Reds moved their spring training headquarters to Plant City in 1988. Al Lopez Field was razed the following year.
The former Horizon Park, north of Raymond James across Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, was renamed in Lopez's honor in 1992 and a statue of him was erected there.
"Al Lopez Field was Yankee Stadium to that Tampa generation," said Elizabeth McCoy, curator at the Ybor City Museum State Park. "If that picture is found it will make a lot of people happy."
Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] or (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.