PLANT CITY — From the outside, it had the feel of an abandoned hospital, a drab and desolate hulking mass of concrete.
The scarlet red paint had faded, succumbing long ago to the relentless Florida sun.
The concourses where vendors once hawked hot dogs and Cracker Jack were quiet.
The grandstands were empty, metal rusting and paint peeling.
The only guests were the birds perched atop the fences behind home plate.
At the apex of the infield diamond, a 10-gallon Gatorade container sat on a stool. Hall of Famer Barry Larkin used to field ground balls and turn double plays here, and yet there wasn’t a single footprint on the freshly-raked dirt.
In left field, under the bleachers, someone dumped a collection of bases. A crumpled wax paper Pepsi cup trapped beneath one of them fluttered in the breeze.
In right field, a blue and white sign warned ballplayers: No soft toss against the fence.
On the outfield grass, white lines. A makeshift 80-yard football field.
Welcome to Plant City Stadium, the former home of baseball’s Cincinnati Reds.
This is the XFL 2.0. And this is the place where, on a Thursday afternoon in early December, the Tampa Bay Vipers, a fledgling professional football team, took their first steps toward kickoff in February.
About 70 players — some of whom have played in the NFL, some of whom dream of one day making it and some of whom never will — sprinted from the edge of the infield to the outfield chain-link fence as coach Marc Trestman, the general of this grand experiment, looked on.
Because the players were wearing hoodies and sweatpants they had just pulled out of their suitcases, reporters struggled to make out who was who. Team employees tried to help, but this was the first day of practice. They’re new here, too.
Before afternoon shadows swallowed the field, Trestman called it a day. He didn’t want to overwhelm the players, many of whom just got into town a couple of days ago.
About 15 minutes after practice ended, Trestman took questions outside an adjacent building the team is sharing with the Plant City Parks and Recreation Department. The XFL gets the left half. The Parks and Recreation Department gets the right half.
So, coach, is this going to work?
“One thing I did tell the players,” Trestman said, “the XFL is for real. The commitment to Mr. McMahon is serious. This is going to happen.”
The XFL is wrestling promoter Vince McMahon’s creation. He reportedly expects to spend half a billion dollars over the first three years of the league’s existence.
Trestman, though, isn’t thinking about 2021 or 2022. He’s thinking about getting his players through the day, one day at a time.
“At some point in time, later in the week, I’ll show them the calendar,” he said. “I’ll show them a little bit of the light at the end of the tunnel and how this thing is going to work.”
Former USF star Quinton Flowers was next.
“I always felt like I’d be back home,” he said. “I just didn’t know when.”
“The sun is brutal,” he said, squinting as he stepped in front of a gaggle of phones and cameras.
It’s grind time, Murray said.
“It’s not (time to) mess around, go out and check the town out,” he said. “There will be time for that on an off day. When you’re in the building, when you’re working, it’s take as many notes as you can. Study at home every night.”
Murray’s done the spring football thing before. Earlier this year, he played for the Atlanta Legends of the defunct Alliance of American Football. He insists the XFL is different. Case in point: This time around, his team isn’t working out at an LA Fitness.
“We have our own facility. We have our own fields. We have our own weight room,” he said.
“It feels like a more legit team.”