Monday, March 17, 2008

Spring Training, 1963

Now that Spring Training is in full swing, it feels like an appropriate time to reflect on how this great annual tradition has changed over time in Florida.

In the not-so-distant past, players reported to their respective camps in order to get into shape. Nowadays, players are expected to stay fit year-round and show up at Spring Training in peak physical condition. Wooden bleachers and "knothole" seats have been replaced by party decks and private suites. Even Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg, home to so many spring memories, is in its final days, soon to be replaced by a waterfront park or new permanent home for the Tampa Bay Rays.

Earlier this month, however, a great tradition that had been dormant since the 1990s was revived at Tropicana Field. The Governor's Baseball Dinner, established in 1947, traditionally was a gathering of state politicians, major and minor league baseball executives, beat writers and others connected to the game.

Laughter, merriment, and good times were had by all in an effort to toast the upcoming season. Former Yankees, Reds and Indians executive Gabe Paul was instrumental in organizing the event and establishing it as a must-attend event over the years. Paul died in 1998, but his son Henry, an attorney and former counsel for the Tampa Bay Lightning, recalls the Governor's Dinner as an important part of every spring.

"These dinners were a chance for baseball executives and the local government to connect and show their appreciation for each other," Paul said.

The 17th annual dinner, held at the Tampa Terrace Hotel on March 20, 1963, featured Florida Gov. Farris Bryant as the event's keynote speaker. In his remarks, Bryant paid tribute to how baseball in Florida heralds the change of seasons.

"The magnolia no longer is the sign of spring in Florida," Bryant said. "But instead it is the crack of the bat and the yells of the people who go to see you play."

Earlier that week 45 years ago, another event was held in Tampa to mark the arrival of baseball in Florida. The second annual Major League Baseball Bowling Tournament, held at the East Gate Lanes, featured showdowns between active major leaguers, coaches, managers and former players, as well as newspaper reporters.

Just imagine for a moment the modern-day spectacle of seeing Carl Crawford, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez in a televised bowling showdown. Roger Clemens has a better chance of pitching to Barry Bonds in an All-Star Game than an event of this kind does to take place again.

Lee Strange, a pitcher for the Minnesota Twins, captured the championship trophy along with a $500 cash prize (over $3300 in today’s dollars). Strange, who said he participated in a Friday-night bowling league during the off-season, defeated Cincinnati Reds pitcher Marvin Fodor in the "roll off" televised locally on WFLA-TV.

While a bowling competition doesn't necessarily evoke the spirit of Spring Training, the simplicity and unpretentious nature of the event calls back to an era in sports that no longer exists.

Today, Spring Training is big business. Most relationships between major league teams and local governments are contentious, with new stadiums, financial incentives and hundreds of millions of annual dollars at stake.

Something else has changed: It’s hard to believe now, but in 1963, 70 percent (14 of 20) Major League teams held training in Florida. While the Sunshine State is still a Spring Training hotbed, by this time next year, barely more than half of Major League teams (16 of 30) will call Florida home in the preseason.

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