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Fond farewell to boys of spring

Beginning in 1914, thousands of players such as Yogi Berra, left, and nine teams, including 22 World Series champions, participated in spring training in St. Petersburg.

File photo (1965)

Beginning in 1914, thousands of players such as Yogi Berra, left, and nine teams, including 22 World Series champions, participated in spring training in St. Petersburg.


For Yankees legend Yogi Berra, it was the regular trips to Derby Lane and a uniquely named dog. For Cardinals Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith, the early morning breakfasts and relaxing evenings on Treasure Island. For Mets icon Tom Seaver, the modern-day yacht club and the old-time feel of the Huggins-Stengel complex.

For thousands of players, there were many splendid memories of spring training in St. Petersburg.

And after today's final game — bringing to an end an institution that started in 1914 — that will be all they have.

"It's here, but I can't visualize a club not having spring training in St. Petersburg, Florida," said Don Zimmer, the Rays senior adviser in his 60th season in the game. "It's a little bit sad. This has been a great spring training town without a doubt — the Mets and the Cardinals and the Yankees — and all of a sudden it's gone."

St. Petersburg hosted nine teams (two at a time more often than not) and produced 22 World Series champions while giving birth to two expansion franchises, the 1962 Mets and 1998 Rays. There might be as much baseball history at the facilities in the city as anywhere.

"It's a shame," Tampa native Lou Piniella said. "It's really a shame."

Said former Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog: "I feel bad for St. Pete."


Lou Piniella

Tampa native; longtime major-leaguer and manager

I remember driving over from Tampa many times with my dad and my uncles to Miller-Huggins Field when the Yankees were there and watching Mickey, Yogi and the rest of the Yankees and Casey Stengel. It's a wonderful place, and it's a shame. It's hard to believe there's not going to be a team in St. Pete.

Bob Costas

Longtime broadcaster

One day I'm sitting behind home plate at Al Lang for a Cardinals-Phillies game that is about to get rained out and this guy taps me on the shoulder and it's (rock musician) George Thorogood. He's in town for a concert and he's a huge baseball fan, so Thorogood and I and (Hall of Fame St. Louis writer) Rick Hummel go out to the Hurricane and have grouper sandwiches and beer and spent all afternoon talking baseball and rock 'n' roll.

Don Zimmer

Longtime major-league player and manager; area resident

I was playing in the American Association and I got hit in the head in 1953, and (Dodgers boss) Buzzie Bavasi said, "Take your wife and kids and go to Florida and recuperate." My mother-in-law and father-in-law had just moved to St. Pete from Cincinnati, so I moved in with them until we got a house. I was done the rest of the year, and the next spring was my first spring with the big club. We come over here to play the Cardinals or the Yankees, I don't remember which one, and the first ground ball hit to me, my family is all here, and I go down to field the ball and it took a bad hop and it hit me right in the head. I had a knot like a golf ball right on my forehead. Buzzie Bavasi was on the trip, and I think Mr. O'Malley, too, we had our own plane, so we'd fly right over here, and Buzzie said to me, "Son, you're going to kill me."

Joe Garagiola

Cardinals catcher; Hall of Fame broadcaster

The Yankees stayed at the Soreno Hotel and we stayed at the Bainbridge near the railroad tracks. A couple guys would go the park early and they'd talk to the conductor so that when he went by the hotel, he'd blow his whistle and it just rattled the windows when he did that. That train came by like it was coming through your room. &

There was a cafeteria where we used to go, and they always had the "early bird special." You'd see the older people stuffing the sugar packets in their pockets. And how could you forget about Webb's City (the then famous "World's Most Unusual Drug Store"), that was a highlight. The only place you could really go at night was the dog track (Derby Lane). And we used to go to Bradenton and Sarasota by ferry. Guys hated to go on that trip. We were like tourists for 30-40 minutes, with seagulls flying over our heads.

Whitey Herzog

Cardinals manager

I loved it there. I was there so much with the Yankees (as a player), with the Mets (as a coach and farm director) and with the Cardinals (managing for 11 seasons), St. Petersburg was like my second home.

When I first went there in 1955 we stayed at the Soreno Hotel. There weren't any high-rises and we'd just sit on the green benches on the main street. We went over to Webb's City drug store, and that was a big night out. And if you saw a woman under 50 you went crazy. ...

When I was with the Cardinals, you had Gussie (Busch, the team owner whose family compound was adjacent to the Don Cesar hotel) out there and always had his big birthday party on St. Patty's Day. And I could go out there to shoot the bull, pop a few and have dinner. Wonderful memories.

Roland Hemond

Longtime executive

Training in St. Petersburg with the Orioles (in the 1990s) brought back memories because in 1951 I was in the Coast Guard and we stopped at Miller-Huggins Field, and that's when the Giants were training there, and I had my picture taken with Leo Durocher and Alvin Dark, and my picture was carried in the Pawtucket (R.I.) Times. So years later with Baltimore I went to that same spot the picture was taken and I took an afternoon nap right there. That place was really exciting. You'd say, "Hey, Babe Ruth was in here, and Miller Huggins was in here, and some Yankees greats had all been here."

Tony La Russa

Tampa native; Cardinals manager

I remember playing a high school game at Al Lang. The field itself, that whole setting, was gorgeous.

,Joe Torre

Cardinals and Mets player and manager

I played a lot of games there. One memory for me was that it was the only time I ever hit three home runs in a game. I think it was '70. We were playing Minnesota, and I hit two home runs off Jim Kaat and one off Luis Tiant. I had never done it before, not in Little League and not at any other level. &

There were some old baseball movies that were filmed there. There was one with Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris that was filmed there: Safe at Home, I think it was called.

Tommy Lasorda

Longtime Dodgers manager

You figure I went over there once a year for 24 years, and I always looked forward to going to this Italian restaurant. We used to fly our plane over there, take us over there in about 11 minutes.

Billy Beane

Mets major-leaguer; A's GM

I remember staying at the old Bayfront Concourse hotel, and it was a big deal to stay there because it meant you were in major-league camp because the minor-leaguers stayed at the Edgewater. But I wasn't old enough to get into the short-lived Playboy Club there. &

My first memories of professional baseball are that area there. I remember the singing hot dog vendor, Tommy Walton, and how he'd change caps from the Mets to the Cardinals depending on who was playing. Still when I go there I love being in that area. We stay at the Vinoy and I show them, "that's where the Edgewater used to be." I've brought my daughter on a trip and taken her out to see the (then-Payson) complex near the mall. I don't get too nostalgic, but I do about that.

Bud Harrelson

Mets shortstop

In 1964 Casey Stengel brought me in for a pre-spring training thing, kind of a precamp. I really didn't know what to expect. I got there, went into the lobby of the Colonial Inn out on St. Pete Beach. I was a kid (19) going to Florida for the first time, and there were a lot of firsts for me. I'd signed with them in '63 and broke my arm and got sent back to California. So I'm sitting in the lobby, I didn't know who (pitcher) Tracy Stallard was, and he says, "Are you with the Mets? Come with me." And he took me to the dog track. How about that? I don't gamble, I don't drink, but he treated me like a teammate. I guess he had to show me the bad habits to be in the big leagues. ...

There was a guy, Howard Isaacs, with a little shop on Tierra Verde — he's made millions now — and I used to go in there to get my Superman T-shirts. I weighed 140 pounds, so I needed all the help I could get.

Frank Thomas

Member of original '62 Mets

I remember one time we went out with Mrs. Payson (the team owner) and I'm sitting next to her. The waitress comes over to take the order and she says she'd like a steak. The waitress asked how she'd like it, and, I'm sitting right next to her, and she says, "Cut off his horns, wipe him and bring it out.' Now that's rare. ... I remember going to the (Tampa) jai-alai place. I enjoyed that, watching their hand-eye coordination. I never bet on it though — with all the kids I had I didn't smoke or drink either, anything that would take food away from them. But it was interesting watching those players.

Cal Ripken

Hall of Fame Orioles player

I was down there in the instructional league in 1978-79 and that time was instrumental in my development as a player. I remember really bonding with my dad during that time because he would come down and visit me and watch me play at the Payson Complex. & I also remember winning a home run derby at Al Lang Stadium. Bob Feller was there and he was in uniform and having fun and they decided to have a home run derby with Bob pitching. Bob said that he was still throwing 100 mph — I think it might have been a little less than that. I was playing in the Florida State League. I won the derby and it was my first real taste of success at the professional level. What a great time!

Yogi Berra

Hall of Fame Yankees catcher; Mets manager

We always went to the dog track. There was a lot of us — DiMag used to go, we all used to go — because there was nothing else to do here then. We knew one of the owners, so there was a dog named after me, Yogi Berra, and there was a Mickey Mantle. Hell, yeah, I bet on (Yogi Berra).

Tom Seaver

Hall of Fame Mets pitcher

For me, St. Petersburg is where it all began — my first spring training. It was a great town, the restaurants, especially the yacht club. I loved the people at Al Lang. The locker rooms at Huggins-Stengel made you feel like you were playing in the 1950s. It was a less complicated time and a time I always will remember with fondness.

Red Schoendienst

Hall of Fame Cardinals player, coach and manager

I remember the first Al Lang Field where (equipment manager) Butch Yatkeman had an old wood stove to get the clothes washed and dried out. But the humidity was pretty tough in those days. They wouldn't dry out half the time. They were washed but they were wet. And they had that old wood floor. You'd better wear sandals or you had a good chance of getting splinters. & I know the fans in leftfield loved it when you hit a ball over the fence and it went in the bay. There might be 10 kids there diving in after that ball.

Ozzie Smith

Hall of Fame Cardinals shortstop

Spring training in St. Petersburg was early morning breakfasts at Foxy's on Treasure Island with Willie McGee, Terry Pendleton and Vince Coleman. Moving from the training facility to Al Lang, which meant the season was that much closer. Timing my drive to the ballpark from Treasure Island to miss the bridge going up. The friendly fan who for years would bring me fresh cut-up oranges and grapefruits sealed in Tupperware. And the peaceful evenings by the water in Treasure Island after a hard day's work.

Fond farewell to boys of spring 03/27/08 [Last modified: Friday, March 28, 2008 1:36pm]
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