I covered my first Saladino Tournament game in 2000 while still a student at the University of South Florida. For a lifelong baseball fan, it was a dream assignment. But I quickly learned action on the field was just a small part of this nationally recognized event that has featured so many future Major Leaguers.
Throughout the years, I've gotten to know the people involved with the tournament and began eagerly awaiting the weeklong event. Most days, I got to the field at 10 a.m. and left around 10 p.m. But the long hours didn't matter. For me, it truly was the definition of a working vacation.
When my son was born in 2010, I took over the role of stay-at-home dad. I relished the role, but knew for at least the next few years, I wouldn't be able to cover the tournament. I was a little bummed.
Then I realized I could bring my son out there with me and enjoy the tournament from a fresh new perspective — a father taking in the sights and sounds of baseball with his kid. Justice's first tournament game came in spring 2011 when he was just 10 months old, and we've been to each one since.
As expected, the veteran tournament volunteers instantly made Justice, who's now just shy of 3 years old, feel welcome and special. He would hang out behind the leftfield fence and collect pine cones, periodically screaming "baseball!" when his curious eyes found the field. My little sidekick, who never takes off his train engineer hat, made fast friends with the men and women who gladly put in the countless hours it takes to pull off an event of this scope.
While sitting under the hospitality tent, the crew would shout in unison, "train!" when one came by the tracks that run parallel to Victoria Street, in order to alert my toddler of its presence.
Justice's eyes got as big as baseballs.
This seemingly small gesture encapsulates the Saladino Tournament, now in its 33rd installment. It's about family first and baseball second. And with the years adding up, that notion is becoming more and more tangible. There have been at least 15 sets of fathers and sons that have participated in the Saladino. Thirty-three former players have gone on to coach Hillsborough County teams in the tournament. Tony Saladino, the tournament's namesake and omnipresent organizer, now has two grandsons playing for Brandon. His great granddaughter sang the national anthem on Tuesday. His wife, Bertha, despite health issues over the past few years, still keeps all the scouts, umpires, players, coaches — and media — well fed with her famous food.
The tournament feels like home.
The Saladino wraps up tonight with the home run derby at 4 and the championship game at 7. There have been rumors swirling around the past few years that each could be the tournament's final run. Saladino has long maintained when he's done hosting the event, it will cease to exist. Essentially, it will retire with him.
So you never know how many more opportunities you'll have to see the next Dwight Gooden or Tino Martinez. Or meet your next longtime friend. So take my advice and head out to Brandon High School for tonight's finale.
And please, bring the family.
Brandon Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.