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Spring comes to Florida

The Royals in Ft. Myers

Spring comes early to Florida, at least by Midwestern standards. On this warm, sunny Saturday afternoon in mid-February, the Terry Park Sports Complex in Ft. Myers is alive with baseball. Every field is in use in what appears to be a college baseball tournament. There’s something about the return of baseball in the spring that makes everything feel better. The sun is warmer, the breeze milder and the grass smells wonderful. After a long winter, it certainly makes me feel better. I temporarily forget about my troubles and my aches and pains and clear my mind with the sound of baseball players chattering and the bat striking the ball.

The land can’t speak for itself but if it could, what stories it could tell.

In 1921, a local Ft. Myers family, the Terry’s, donated 25 acres of cow pasture to Lee County, Florida. A small grandstand was erected and in 1925, the Philadelphia Athletics began using the field as their spring training site. The Athletics stayed and used the site until 1936. The famous inventor Thomas Edison, who wintered nearby, visited the site in 1926 as a guest of Connie Mack. Edison and his close friend Henry Ford, had winter homes about 4 miles east of the park. That site is now a tourist attraction and if you are in the Ft. Myers area, I strongly recommend taking a few hours to tour the site. Ford was a titan in his own right, but Edison…good lord, that guy was something else. Just a walk through the museum and the Edison laboratory is enough to blow your mind.

Connie Mack and Thomas Edison

When the Athletics departed, the Cleveland Indians moved into the complex from 1940 to 1942. The wooden grandstand was destroyed by fire in 1943 and wasn’t rebuilt until 1955, when a steel and concrete structure was erected. The new structure attracted the Pittsburgh Pirates, and local favorite Roberto Clemente, to Ft. Myers, who called Terry their spring home until they moved to nearby Bradenton in 1969.

The complex didn’t stay empty long. The expansion Royals moved into Terry for their first spring training in 1969 and stayed until 1987. The one major change the Royals eventually made to the main field at Terry Park was to install artificial turf to acclimate their players to the field they would hopefully someday play on at Royals Stadium.

The main stadium at Terry Park is now called the Park Piggott Memorial Stadium. It sits in a predominately middle-class neighborhood of Ft. Myers. The first exhibition game played on the field in 1969 came against another expansion team, the Montreal Expos. The game drew 1,768 fans, many who strolled over from their nearby homes for the game. Nine Lee County junior and senior high marching bands performed before the game. Florida governor Claude Kirk threw out the first pitch. The game was the first ever to use the Designated hitter, as an experiment, prior to the American League adopting the DH for good in 1973. The Expos won that game by the score of 9-to-8 when Bob Bailey hit a three-run, ninth inning home run off Orlando Pena.

In 1971, the Royals hosted the Tokyo Giants and famed slugger Sadahara Oh. The Giants were a powerhouse in the Japanese League and Oh, a baseball legend, ended his career with 868 home runs. The Royals lost that one too, 7-4.

Baltimore manager Earl Weaver once pulled his team off the field in protest of a substitution by the Royals. In a somewhat meaningless spring training game. He loaded the Orioles in their bus and took them back to Miami, their spring training site. Weaver always was a grade A Red Ass. A man known to locals as the Forbes Field screech owl (he moved to Ft. Myers from Pittsburgh) used to walk around the stadium flapping his arms and, well, screeching like a bird, “whoop, whoop!”. As Weaver was pulling his team off the field, the Forbes owl was screaming, “Hey Earl Weaver! Whoop! I’ll see you in the funny papers! Whoop!”

George Brett stories abound. Most ballplayers like to play some golf in spring training. Brett was no exception. One year, Brett was playing at the Ft. Myers Country Club and won a closest-to-pin contest. The prize was a recliner, which Brett royally parked in front of his locker at Terry. Who’d he beat to win the recliner? His brother Ken of course. Other members of the Royals were allowed to sit in the chair. Except for Ken.

One spring, the Royals were returning from a game in St. Petersburg when their bus broke down on I-75. Today, with cell phones and South Florida bumper to bumper traffic, that would be no problem. Back then, they were in the middle of nowhere. Brett decided to hitchhike back to Ft. Myers. “Gotta get home to watch Dallas” said Brett. Dallas was the Yellowstone of that day and age and nobody missed it. John Wathan decided to join Brett on the side of the road. Brett stuck out his thumb and almost immediately a beautiful woman in a convertible stopped. The car only had two seats. The woman asked how much money George made. Being a believer in fair trade, she asked Wathan how much he made. Brett and the beauty sped off leaving Wathan by the side of the road.

Bo Jackson was another favorite of the locals. One spring, Bo hit a monstrous home run off the Tigers. Young Bo stood at the plate and admired his prowess. The Tigers were hacked. As Bo crossed home plate, the Tiger catcher admonished him, “We don’t do that at this level”.

There was also sadness in Ft. Myers. The Royals last spring training at Terry Park came in 1987. Dick Howser was dying from a brain tumor. He had tried valiantly to come back, but as they say, cancer is a bitch. Howser called the team over to Field 2 and broke the news to them. He died that June, gone too soon at age 51.

Beginning in 1978, the Royals had their Class A affiliate located in Ft. Myers. The Ft. Myers Royals played at Piggott from 1978 to 1987. Most Royals of that era, including stars like Bret Saberhagen and Kevin Seitzer began their careers with the Ft. Myers Royals.

Scores of Hall of Famers and baseball immortals trained and played at Terry over the years including Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Hack Wilson, Ty Cobb, Rodgers Hornsby and Mel Ott.

The facility sustained heavy damage from Hurricane Charley in 2004. The main grandstand had to be razed and was rebuilt on a much smaller scale. Hurricane Ian struck the Ft. Myers area last fall, especially Ft. Myers Beach and Sanibel Island, but the ballpark missed most of the carnage.

Today, Ft. Myers is the spring training home to the Boston Red Sox, who play at JetBlue Park and the Minnesota Twins, who play at Hammond Stadium. Spring training baseball is big business nowadays with the Grapefruit League being home to Atlanta, Baltimore, Detroit, Houston, Miami, the New York Mets and Yankees, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Tampa, Toronto, Washington and the two Ft. Myers teams.

Walking through the Terry complex made me wistful for the Royals days. A teenage Deion Sanders used to hang out at the complex and developed a friendship with Royals manager Dick Howser. Sanders, always a hustler, would gather foul balls which he later had Royal players autograph. The budding entrepreneur would then resell the balls to fans and tourists. The Royals drafted Sanders in the sixth round of the 1985 draft, but Howser convinced Neon to attend college instead. Sanders of course was a standout cornerback for Florida State (Howser’s alma mater) and now resides in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He played some baseball too, sort of a mini-Bo Jackson. Sanders called baseball his “mistress” and over nine seasons played for the Braves, Yankees, Giants and Reds but never the Royals.

Ft. Myers today is vastly different from when the Royals arrived in 1969. Lee County’s population in 1969 was about 108,000. Today it’s about 800,000. I-75, a three-lane superspeedway not for the faint of heart, didn’t even reach Ft. Myers in 1969. Florida Gulf Coast University, Dunk City of March Madness fame, didn’t even exist. The primary airport was a small muni called Page Field.

The Royals wanted the City of Ft. Myers to invest money into Terry Park and Piggott Field, to bring it up to major league standards, but a deal could not be reached. Everything eventually comes down to money, doesn’t it? Just 18 months after winning the World Series, the Royals moved north to the Orlando area to some kind of a baseball/boardwalk mashup called Baseball City that ended disastrously. The Royals eventually left Florida, moving to Surprise, Arizona, and the Cactus League in 2003. At the time, Surprise was a small suburb of about 45,000 sun baked souls. Today, Surprise is home to about 150,000 and still growing. In their final year in Ft. Myers, the Royals sold 45,000 tickets. In their debut season in Surprise, they sold 35,000 tickets before they ever played a game. Overall attendance jumped 50%. It’s all about the Benjamins baby.