Florida Today baseball writer Mark DeCotis broke the story on August 6 that the Washington Nationals have contacted Osceola County about moving their spring training complex to Kissimmee.
If the Nats move, the irony is that it would be the second time Brevard County has lost a major league club to Kissimmee. The Astros left Cocoa Expo Stadium in 1984 for Kissimmee.
I wrote on April 3 about Florida Today reporting that Nationals officials were touring a facility in Ft. Myers that’s currently used by the Boston Red Sox.
Nationals officials have not commented publicly on their dalliances with Osceola and Lee Counties, but a letter obtained by DeCotis made it clear the Nationals were interested in exploring a move to Kissimmee.
Washington Nationals President Stan Kasten sent a letter to Osceola County officials last month expressing interest in possibly moving the team’s spring training home from Viera to Osceola County Stadium in Kissimmee.
Kasten sent the letter to Osceola County Manager Don Fisher. In the correspondence dated July 26, Kasten wrote to Fisher: “It was nice speaking to you last Thursday and it was very interesting hearing about the potential for a new spring training complex in Osceola County.
“I would certainly be interested in meeting with you and hearing more about your plans in greater detail, as we consider our own future spring training plans. In the event Osceola County is interested in moving forward, please let me know.”
If you’re of a conspiratorial bent, it would be reasonable to assume that Kasten knew full well any written correspondence he sent to Osceola would be a public document and potentially leaked.
The July 26 letter might have been intended to pressure Brevard officials into approving improvements for Space Coast Stadium. Florida Today reported on August 4 that county commissioners approved $316,000 in improvements for 2011. The letter was sent a week before the Brevard vote.
The Nationals’ lease runs through December 31, 2017, so if they leave “the club must reimburse the county for Space Coast Stadium construction-bond payments until another team moves in, said Shannon Wilson, assistant county attorney.”
As for Lee County, the Ft. Myers News-Press reported on August 6 that “the county remains interested in the Nationals.”
Jeff Mielke, executive director of the Lee County Sports Authority, wasn’t surprised to hear the Nationals are showing interest elsewhere.
“We all thought the Nationals would shop around,” Mielke said.
He believes it’s likely that the Nationals could leave Florida’s east coast. Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Vero Beach all had spring training teams but no longer do. That makes for few convenient road trips for the Nationals.
“I don’t think it’s any secret that the east coast is getting a little tougher,” Mielke said.
The Nationals are hardly the only major league team to play hardball with a municipal landlord.
Most recently, the Chicago Cubs played Mesa, Arizona against Naples, Florida, hoping to extort stadium improvements out of Mesa. But Naples withdrew in July, leaving the Cubs without their leverage.
In November 2003, Los Angeles Angels owner Arte Moreno threatened to move the team’s spring training complex from Tempe, Arizona across the Phoenix valley to Goodyear, where Moreno was a partner in a residential and commercial development. The extortion worked, as one year later Tempe agreed to finance $20 million in stadium improvements, including a new minor league complex.
The local financial benefits are questionable for a municipality to host a major league baseball spring training.
Studies will often cite gross revenue and other indirect impacts. One example is this 1999 study by the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council which concluded that the “Total impact of the nine teams on Florida’s economy is $227 million.”
But the study failed to look at the costs accrued by cities, counties and the State of Florida to build and maintain publicly owned facilities. Nor did they consider alternate uses of public land that might generate more revenue. Public land is not subject to property tax, while private land is.
Neither do these studies mention that most of these facilities include a minor league complex that will operate almost year-around, with games played from March through October. No revenue is generated from those games, as no admission or parking fee is charged, but municipal landlords are responsible for maintenance and rehabilitation costs unless otherwise specified in the lease.
Should the Nationals threaten to leave, Brevard County should conduct a thorough economic study that weighs these other options. In the long run, would the county receive more revenue from another land use at Space Coast Stadium? One scenario might be to raze the ballpark, and sell the land for residential and commerical use. The minor league complex might be preserved for use by amateur adult and youth sports.
The orphan in most of these scenarios would be the Brevard County Manatees of the Florida State League. The Manatees are a Milwaukee Brewers affiliate, not a Nationals affiliate. Space Coast Stadium’s 8,000-seat capacity is way too much for the Manatees’ needs. The Manatees are averaging about 1,300 per game in 2010; even in their best years, they rarely average more than 2,000.
The Manatees would be best served by construction of a 2,500-seat capacity stadium. An excellent location, in my opinion, would be the current site of Cocoa Expo at the I-95 and the 520 highway. But either the county would have to buy the site, or investors would, and neither scenario seems likely right now. So if the Nationals leave, it might mean the eventual departure of the Manatees franchise to elsewhere in Florida.
I’ve always felt that baseball teams should pay for their own facilities, but there seems to be an endless supply of municipalities willing to subsidize a multi-billion dollar industry for ego or pride. Many taxpayers think these facilities are paid by the same funds that pay for police and fire, but that’s simply not true. The typical scheme is the creation of a special enterprise fund that raises money from a local hotel tax, a slice of ticket sales and parking fees, perhaps state economic development funds. But regardless of the funding source, I wish more municipalities would tell these billionaires to stick it.
Rusty Staub scores ahead of Jim Wynn, who just homered for the Houston Colt .45s, April 4, 1964.
I visited the Central Brevard Library in Cocoa earlier this week in search of our baseball history.
The library has on microfilm editions of Florida Today from its inception in 1966, along with the Cocoa Tribune and other local papers.
If you want to print a copy of a microfilmed page, the old-fashioned way is to send it to a printer. That option is still available (for 10¢ a page), but new technology allows you to save an image digitally. That image can be enhanced using an application such as Adobe Photoshop, although there’s only so much you can do. Microfilms are usually fairly poor copies of original pages.
If your objective is to reproduce a photo from a microfilmed page, the much preferable option is to obtain the original print or its negative, but good luck with that.
The original photo is most likely the copyrighted property of the newspaper. Some papers are good about preserving their photo archives, others don’t. If the paper has gone out of existence, or merged into another publication, the archives are probably lost to history. If it still exists, you will be charged a significant amount for a print, and lots more if you intend to use it in a publication or for some commercial purpose.
The original negatives might be with the photographer, but if the image you seek is 40-50 years old that person is most likely no longer an employee, and may not be alive.
I reviewed two periods in 1964 to see how closely the Cocoa Tribune covered baseball back then.
That was probably the most important baseball year in Space Coast history.
The Houston Astros, then called the Colt .45s, moved their spring training camp from Apache Junction, Arizona to Cocoa. The city built a new baseball complex for the team. We know it today as Cocoa Expo, but its given name was Cocoa Colt Stadium.
The Cocoa Tribune archives for April 1964 show the camp was covered daily by the paper. The Colts were treated like a hometown team, with extensive reports on every game, both home and away.
The image at the top of this article was scanned from a printout of an April 5, 1964 article about a spring training game at Cocoa Colt Stadium. Houston outfielder Jimmy Wynn just hit a three-run homer. That’s Rusty Staub ahead of him about to score.
As you can see, the image is — well, crummy.
I hope to use the digital microfilm reader on my next trip to the library, to see if I can get better results by capturing the page to a JPEG file. (Someone else was using it when I was there.)
The photo credit on all images was, “Tribune Sportsphoto,” so there was no clue who was the original photographer. The articles had no byline for their authors.
If you’re familiar with Cocoa Expo today, the images show it hasn’t changed much since 1964.
The Colts greet Cocoa Little Leaguers, April 5, 1964.
This image was in the April 6, 1964 paper. Cocoa Little Leaguers took the field to meet the Colt .45 players. You can clearly see the stands in the background, looking virtually the same as today.
The other period I searched was July 1964. Statistical references from the period included a Cocoa Rookie League, a minor league circuit that existed only that one year. It was Rookie-A, the equivalent of today’s Gulf Coast League Nationals in Viera.
What made this league unique is that all four teams played out of Cocoa Colt. In addition to the Colts, the Mets, Tigers and Twins also fielded teams. It appears that doubleheaders were played every day, weather permitting, with two of the teams playing in the first game and the other two teams in the second. Minor league doubleheader games are seven innings each, although it appears that Sunday games may have been nine innings. Game #1 started at 5:00 PM, Game #2 scheduled for 7:30 PM.
The Tribune did provide some basic coverage of the league. I found stories every day about the two games played, along with a basic line score. No attendance was reported, if anyone actually did attend. A few photos appeared with articles published in the league’s early days, but photographic interest seems to have waned after that.
Mets southpaw Tug McGraw threw a no-hitter at Cocoa Colt on July 3, 1964.
Three days into the season, Mets’ left-hander Tug McGraw threw a seven-inning no-hitter against the Colts rookies, which appears to have been his first professional start. The next day, Twins pitchers Jerry Lysico and Gene Melton combined to no-hit the Tigers.
McGraw went on to fame as the ace closer for first the Mets and then the Phillies. He passed away in 2004 from a brain tumor. His son is the famous Country-Western singer Tim McGraw.
Pro ball was in Cocoa long before the Colts arrived.
According to Professional Baseball Franchises From the Abbeville Athletics to the Zanesville Indians, a team called the Cocoa Indians played in the Florida State League from 1951 through 1958. Before that, the Cocoa Fliers played in the Florida East Coast League from 1941 until the league disbanded during the opening days of World War II, as did many minor leagues.
I’ve no idea where they played, since Cocoa Expo wasn’t built until 1964.
Hopefully the Tribune microfilms will help us to resurrect that early Space Coast baseball history.
Cocoa Expo Stadium last saw professional baseball in 1993. Will the fans return for independent winter league baseball?
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.
Stephen Strasburg, the #1 pick in the June 2009 draft, made his professional debut October 5 at Space Coast Stadium. SpaceCoastBaseball.com was there to film it.
Welcome to Space Coast Baseball.
You must have questions.
The first one is probably, “What’s with the geeky Space Coast name?!”
Well, “Space Coast” is actually a term used by locals to refer to a region of central Florida that roughly aligns with Brevard County. It includes Cape Canaveral, Cocoa Beach, Merritt Island, Titusville, Cocoa, Melbourne, Viera, Rockledge and many other towns. As you might suspect, the name comes from Kennedy Space Center, which is five miles up the road from where I’m writing you now.
Your next question might be, “Which team do you cover?”
Space Coast Baseball doesn’t cover one team, it covers professional and amateur baseball in the Space Coast region.
We have a Milwaukee Brewers affiliate, the Advanced-A Brevard County Manatees in the Florida State League. They play in Space Coast Stadium in Viera, which is run by the Washington Nationals. The Nats have their minor league complex here, and a team in the Rookie-A Gulf Coast League.
Starting October 30, 2009, the Florida Winter Baseball League begins play. This is a new league formed by a group of investors who are trying to create a U.S. equivalent to the winter leagues in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Venezuela. Ken Griffey, Sr. is the league commissioner. Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez is one of the investors. Former Reds/Mets slugger George Foster will manage one of the teams.
The Space Coast Surge, one of four FWBL teams, will play in Cocoa Expo Stadium. This historic facility was the spring training home of the Houston Astros from the mid-1960s through the early 1980s. It was also the spring training home of the Florida Marlins in 1993, until Space Coast Stadium opened for them in 1994.
We also have college ball at nearby Brevard Community College and Florida Tech, semi-pro ball and amateur leagues.
The Space Coast Baseball blog is an adjunct to my existing web site, SpaceCoastbaseball.com. The web site will have news, features, interviews, photos, audio and video. I suspect the video clips will be very popular. The latest video is of Stephen Strasburg’s pro debut October 5 at Space Coast Stadium. This isn’t the boring ESPN video shot from high up in the press box. This is me behind home plate with my camcorder filming through the net so you get the same perspective as the batter.
Click Here to watch the Strasburg video. You need Windows Media Player and a broadband (cable modem, DSL) Internet connection to watch.
This blog will be a complement to that main site, so you’ll want to bookmark both. The blog is more for every day commentary, although there will be crossover for sure.
A quick note on my background … I moved here in June 2009 from Southern California, where I was a lifelong Angels fan. Since 1998, I’ve run a web site FutureAngels.com that covers the Angels’ minor leagues. I also have an Angels blog here on MLBlogs.com called the FutureAngels.com Blog. You’ll see some Space Coast news over on the FutureAngels.com Blog, although now that this new blog is established most of it will be here.
Both FutureAngels.com and SpaceCoastBaseball.com are non-commerical enterprises. They are service-oriented sites, meaning they exist to be of help to those with an interest in those subjects. FutureAngels.com got its start years ago by providing photos and news for the Angels players’ parents, as well as fans who didn’t know much about the minors. Twelve years later, the Internet pretty much saturates us with anything we want to know about minor league ball, but since I enjoy documenting the history of the game you’ll see, hear and read a lot that normally doesn’t show up in mainstream media or fan sites.
So check out the SpaceCoastBaseball.com web site and stay tuned. This project is go for launch.