Monday, April 21, 2008

Three-Way Doubleheader, 4/20/73

In the days before the pursuit of a Major League team became the focus of the Tampa Bay area, the Class A Florida State League dominated the local baseball scene.

Here in Tampa, the Tarpons reigned supreme, playing their home games at Al Lopez Field. Although both the Tarpons and the stadium are now part of history, today the Tampa Yankees carry the flag locally for the Florida State League.

Now in its 10th decade of organized baseball, the FSL began its 43rd season of play 35 years ago this week. It would prove to be a season like no other in the history of the league.

The departures of Orlando and Cocoa from the FSL left each division with only five teams: Tampa, St. Petersburg, Winter Haven, Lakeland and Daytona Beach in the Northern division, and Miami, Key West, Fort Lauderdale, Pompano Beach and West Palm Beach in the Southern division.

An unusual scheduling solution would be needed to correct the imbalance of having an odd number of teams in each division. Rather than having one team per division sit out each night, costing the team much needed revenue, the league found a way to keep every team playing, every night.

The answer: a three-way doubleheader.

Here's how it went down on April 20, 1973, when the Winter Haven Red Sox and Lakeland Tigers both visited the Tampa Tarpons. Following Tampa's 1-0 victory over Winter Haven in the evening's first contest, Lakeland took the field for a brief practice on the infield.

Shortly after that, the second game of the doubleheader began. The Tigers topped the Tarpons in the nightcap 2-1, perhaps the beneficiaries of playing only one half of the doubleheader.

Despite a seven-inning limit per game, the strange promotion seemingly put the host team at a disadvantage. Factor in the normal fatigue associated with a doubleheader, then consider the second game played against a completely fresh opponent.

Major league farm directors and even the players themselves contended that the abundance of doubleheaders would stunt the development of young players. A longer season, up to 150 games from 138 the previous year, and a paired down roster from 25 to 21 players, were other concerns.

In 1972, the Florida State League did not schedule a single doubleheader. By July 4, the Tarpons were scheduled to have participated in at least 64 doubleheaders, 48 of the three-team variety.

George McDonald, Jr., in his first season as the president of the FSL, acknowledged the unusual schedule would be hard on players, create long waits for teams, and could foresee the difficulty of two teams sharing one clubhouse. Still, McDonald believed that because the scheduling had been incorporated once before by the Carolina League that it could succeed in Florida as well.

Club owners, McDonald said, "wanted to retain the divisional set-up and minimize travel between divisions." And, he said, "The schedule is great for the fans in that they can see more than two teams play at one time."

Three teams, two games, one night, to be precise.

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