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Baseball is still a hit here

JIM DAMASKE   |   Times  Pasco County was home to spring training baseball for three seasons in the 1960s.
JIM DAMASKE | Times Pasco County was home to spring training baseball for three seasons in the 1960s.
Published Mar. 22, 2018

Editor's note: A version of this column was first published March 17, 2011

Around here, the teens of spring are the boys of summer.

No rookies hoping to break camp with the Major Leagues. No nearly 40-year-olds seeking a last chance at a million-dollar paycheck. No fantasy league picks. There is no spring training baseball in Pasco or Hernando counties. Tampa, Lakeland and Dunedin present the closest opportunities to watch a professional game for residents in the region north of Hillsborough County.

But if you were determined to spend part of a glorious day viewing America's pastime, then a little hookey was in order earlier in the week.

There was still a chance to watch some fine baseball. All it took was a drive to Wesley Chapel for a sample of high school fare in the first Pasco County Varsity Baseball Tournament featuring a dozen high school teams from Pasco and Hernando counties.

I took a break from the tedium of channel dredging, budget shortfalls and impact fees to do just that, watching four innings of a contest between the Central High Bears and the Hudson Cobras.

Five bucks gets you inside. The hot dogs go for $2 and drinks, popcorn and other snacks are just a dollar. The price list and the absence of beer vendors clue you in that this is prep, not professional, ball.

The sounds of the game vary as well. The ping of aluminum or alloy long ago replaced the crack of a wooden bat in the amateur ranks. Tuesday afternoon, the public address announcer didn't get chattering until the third inning. Wesley Chapel players - scheduled to play later in the evening - chased the foul balls and returned them to the field. Meanwhile, teenage girls with their shoulders exposed to the sun spent as much time texting as they did taking notice of the play on the diamond.

The quality of play, particularly the timely, two-out hitting, was impressive. And who really needed a PA announcer? The offerings from coaches Al Sorrentino of Central and Hudson's Keith Newton provided on-field dialogue to the fans and nonstop instruction to the players.

"Pretty pitch.''

"Why aren't we working?''

"Throw a strike. Stop falling away.''

"Get two (outs) on a bunt. Rotate to your left.''

"Don't lean into it. Get ready to hit it.''

"Stay on top of it.''

"You can't swing turning away.''

"Drive your hips to his glove.''

For those unfamiliar with baseball, the coaches, in order: commented on a curve ball; chastised flat-footed infielders; critiqued a pitcher's delivery; gave defensive instructions; offered multiple batting tips and, finally, reinforced pitching mechanics.

Hope you got all that. The hope for these kids on spring break was a win in the consolation bracket and higher finish by the tournament's end.

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Hope is a common word in baseball. Alexander Pope told us that "Hope springs eternal'' in his 1732 writing, An Essay on Man. It's a phrase now nearly synonymous with baseball's annual spring training when the onset of the 162-game regular season is still weeks away and everyone believes they have a chance to contend.

Spring training, however, didn't use to exclude Pasco County. More than 40 years ago, there was a three-season love affair between Dade City and professional baseball. The Syracuse Chiefs, today's triple A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays, trained in Dade City in 1962. They played at Massey Field, which is now occupied by the Pasco County Courthouse on E Live Oak Avenue.

The Chiefs stayed only one season, however. The club affiliated with the Detroit Tigers the following year and moved its spring training to Lakeland. The praise heaped upon the area by the Chiefs helped lure the Chattanooga Lookouts and the Little Rock Travelers, both minor league affiliates of the Philadelphia Phillies, to train in Dade City in 1963-64, but the teams departed amid a reorganization of Phillies' minor league teams.

The area's presumed final flirtation with spring training was the 1990s unsuccessful pitch to lure the Yankees to Wesley Chapel. The franchise took a $30 million deal from Hillsborough County instead to play in what is now known as George M. Steinbrenner Field.

In the end, though, Wesley Chapel made out just fine. A dozen teams of teenagers playing for fun and pride are the tangible proof.

Contact C.T. Bowen @ctbowen@tampabay.com or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2

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