Tagged: Marlins

Pirates of the Florida State League

On November 10, 2009, the Pittsburgh Pirates purchased the Sarasota Reds franchise in the Florida State League and moved it north to Bradenton.

The Reds were no longer interested in Florida because they’ve moved their spring training/minor league complex to Arizona for 2010. The Lynchburg franchise in the Carolina League, which was the Pirates’ Advanced Class-A affiliate, will now be a Reds’ affiliate.

As more baseball organizations relocate from Florida to Arizona, it’s led some to question the continued viability of the Grapefruit League, the spring training circuit for teams based here in the Sunshine State. The Dodgers and Indians preceded the Reds in recent years, leaving fifteen clubs in Florida. Arizona’s advantage is that its fifteen clubs are all located around Phoenix, while Florida’s clubs are scattered about the state.

One rumor persists that the Chicago Cubs might relocate from Mesa, Arizona to Naples, Florida. This probably has more to do with the Cubs’ lease on Hohokam Stadium, which allows them to opt out in 2010. Major league organizations often seek “opt out” clauses in long-term leases as a means of squeezing their municipal landlords for improvements, financed (of course) by the taxpayers. Hohokam is rather antiquated by modern major league baseball complex standards. It has only two practice fields, limited parking and little room for expansion. The minor league complex is about three blocks south at Fitch Park. These days, clubs prefer an integrated complex to seamlessly move players from one facility to another. Naples, presumably, would be a clean slate.

Most Florida State League clubs operate out of their parent club’s spring training complex. The twelve FSL teams and their parent clubs are (those in the parent club’s park are in bold):

Bradenton Marauders Pittsburgh Pirates
Brevard County Manatees  Milwaukee Brewers
Charlotte Stone Crabs Tampa Bay Rays
Clearwater Threshers Philadelphia Phillies
Daytona Cubs Chicago Cubs
Dunedin Blue Jays Toronto Blue Jays
Ft. Myers Miracle Minnesota Twins
Jupiter Hammerheads Florida Marlins
Lakeland Flying Tigers Detroit Tigers
Palm Beach Cardinals St. Louis Cardinals
St. Lucie Mets New York Mets
Tampa Yankees New York Yankees

 

If the Chicago Cubs move to Naples, it creates a scenario where they might want to move their FSL affiliation to Naples too. To do that, they’d have to acquire an FSL franchise. The Pirates bought Sarasota from the Reds and moved it to Bradenton, but none of the other organizations based in their own complex seem inclined any time soon to leave as Cincinnati did.

That would leave the two teams not playing in their parent club’s park — the Daytona Cubs and the Brevard County Manatees.

The straightforward solution is to move the Daytona franchise to Naples, but Daytona is one of the historic franchises in the league. Daytona has been in and out of the FSL since 1920. Since 1993, it’s been a Cubs affiliate. Jackie Robinson Ballpark is historic because of its namesake; according to their web site, “The park was renamed Jackie Robinson Ballpark in 1989 as the stadium served as host to the first racially integrated game in baseball history,” although that’s not quite true as their were many semi-pro, independent and barnstorming games in the early 20th Century that were more or less integrated. Daytona Beach was the first Florida town to permit Robinson to play with his white Dodgers teammates, during 1946 spring training.

In any case, should the Daytona franchise’s owner choose not to sell, that leaves only the Manatees. The Brevard franchise could relocate to Naples, then switch affiliations to the Cubs. An affiliation switch couldn’t happen, though, until the Manatees’ Player Development Contract (PDC) with Milwaukee expires after the 2010 season.

Daytona drew an average 2,425 fans per game in 2009, while Brevard drew only 1,183. That’s a slight improvement from 1,035 in 2008, but it’s still down significantly from 2,151, the last year the Marlins were in town before swapping with Montreal in Jupiter. The best average attendance since then was 1,822 in 2004, the year before the Expos left and the Brewers replaced them.

The Manatees sublease Space Coast Stadium from the Washington Nationals, formerly the Expos. They changed their Advanced Class-A affiliation to Potomac in the Carolina League in 2005 when the Expos moved to D.C., so there’s no chance the Nats would put an FSL team in Brevard if the Manatees leave.

Just speculating, but another scenario might be the transfer of two franchises to the FSL from the California League. Minor League Baseball considered transferring two Cal League franchises, Bakersfield and High Desert, to the Carolina League after the 2008 season. That idea fell through, apparently because new ballparks weren’t available.

If Daytona or Brevard moved to Naples, that franchise could be replaced by one from the Cal League, although to keep schedules balanced in both leagues two franchises would have to move to Florida. East Coast teams such as the Rays and Red Sox had to play in the Cal League in recent years because no Florida or Carolina option was available.

Should the Cubs move to Naples, it could trigger a cascade of events in the Florida State League perhaps unanticipated so far by the public. But it would reverse the slow migration west of major league clubs heading for Arizona.


UPDATE January 10, 2010Click here to read an article on MLB.com about the history and movement between the Grapefruit League and Cactus League.

The article describes the Reds’ new start-of-the-art complex in Goodyear:

The Reds’ $23 million complex features six full practice fields plus two half-fields for infield work, and space for agility drills. There are multiple bullpens and covered batting cages. The facility also features a 43,000 square foot, two-story building for offices, clubhouses and rehabilitation.

Contrast that with what I wrote above about the Cubs’ limited facility in Mesa, and you can understand why they’re looking around.

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.

 

Welcome to Space Coast Baseball

Stephen Strasburg
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.