Cocoa Expo: Last Rites, or Rebirth?


Cocoa Expo Stadium last saw professional baseball in 1993. Will the fans return for independent winter league baseball?

 

Professional baseball returns to Cocoa Expo Stadium on October 30 when the Space Coast Surge take the field to open their inaugural Florida Winter Baseball League season.

Let’s be frank — Cocoa Expo has seen better days.

The facility was built in 1964 by the City of Cocoa for the Houston Colt .45s, who soon became the Astros, as their spring training facility. The Astros left for Kissimmee in 1985. According to a June 13, 2008 Florida Today article, the Astros moved after a dispute with Cocoa over who would pay for facility renovations.

After the Astros left, the City of Cocoa sold the complex to private investors. Major league baseball returned when the newly born Florida Marlins held their first spring training there in 1993, which is why the stadium has teal paint. The Marlins moved into Space Coast Stadium in 1994.

A former official at Cocoa Expo loaned me a 2005 Official Events Program & Visitors Guide, which has photos of the complex and its history. Click Here to view the Guide. You need Adobe Acrobat Reader to view the Guide. Page 18 has a photo of the stadium in better days.

Little has been done to keep the stadium in a condition suitable for professional baseball, because there hasn’t been a demand. It’s used for amateur college, high school and other youth tournaments.

Complicating matters will be the Space Coast State Fair which runs November 5-15. The fair will occupy the stadium and practice fields. A 2008 fair map shows the stadium field was used for concerts and bull riding, while the practice fields were used for parking.

The Surge open with three home games October 30 – November 1, then the fair forces them to play road games for three weeks. Their next home game won’t be until November 27, after Thanksgiving. Not only will the condition of the fields be a question mark, but any fan base momentum from the opening homestand could be lost with the team gone so long.

The Surge are tenants, not owners, so any customer dissatisfaction may be directed unfairly at them. I’m sure Surge management will do everything they can to make a night at the ballpark as enjoyable as possible for the fans, but for the players the conditions might not be pleasant.

For those of you who love baseball history, for those Space Coast residents who grew up going to games at Cocoa Expo, you’ll enjoy exploring the facility. If you’ve been over to the Nationals’ complex in Viera, you’ll notice many similarities — a stadium for the parent club, surrounded by practice fields and batting cages. Some of the Surge players who’ve worked for major league organizations have told me the complex has a certain familiarity, as they were in “complex” facilities with their former parent clubs.

Be sure to look for the “Ryan Ramp”:


Nolan Ryan kept his leg strength by running serpentine up and down this ramp on the back of the batting cage.

 

Former major league catcher Jack Hiatt, who was an Astros minor league manager in the early 1980s, remembers Ryan running on the ramp. “The ramp was covered with Astro Turf,” he said. “After a full day of normal spring training work, Nolan would end up at the ramp for extra conditioning. He would run sideways up and down the ramp. I would watch him and think that’s what it takes to be a Hall of Famer.”

As you can see from the photo, the Astro Turf is long gone and the ramp has rotted through in places.

Here are some other photos I shot recently at Cocoa Expo. See you Friday night for the season opener.


Looking from the batting cage south to the stadium.

 


The left field fence looking from the foul pole towards center field.

 


Behind the left field fence. Watch your speed.

 


The third base dugout. Note that the players’ restroom is lacking a door.

 

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