August 5, 2021

Winter Haven

January 25, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

“To me, it’s like my family,” Elaine says. “Every spring, it’s like all my boys are coming home.   All these wonderful people touch your life, and now I might never see them again.”

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courtesy CITYSIGHTS post cards

“Earlier this spring, Sabathia had joked that he was going to ‘take a bat’ to the clubhouse on the final day.   But he didn’t . . .  ‘I can’t say I’m going to miss it, Sabathia said.”

– Anthony Castrovince, March 2006.   mlb.com/news


Does the name Winter Haven mean anything to you?

Maybe you associate it with Bobby Ojeda, Tim Crews, Steve Olin, and the tragic accident that occurred on an off day during spring training back in 1993.  Or perhaps what comes to mind is the more cheerful image of Chief Wahoo and his dubious smile painted on a water tower in a random town in the middle of nowhere, Florida.  Maybe you’re a longtime Red Sox fan, and you remember that for some years before the equipment truck left Fenway Park for Fort Myers, it was bound for a town called Winter Haven.

The place means something to me, but keep in mind that I’m one who often romanticizes baseball.   Sometimes it’s hard for me to see a literal thing without turning it into a metaphor for something else, or a negative thing into something better.

Winter Haven.  Its name suggests safety.   A refuge in a cold season.  Two words simply coupled, their imagery and soft vowels and consonants summon up feelings of warmth and calm, subliminally perhaps, not unlike how the words spring training ring like music.

I’ve had few opportunities to make training camp a literal endpoint in my own prolonged baseball journey.   Dodgertown 1993, Winter Haven 2006, Fort Myers 2009, and that’s about it.  Spring training is not so much a geographic destination or actual experience as it is an abstraction that occupies a big space in my imagination.

I suspect that spring training is a state of mind for others too, not just me.   It’s an internal  and imagined landscape for many during the month of January, to be sure, as blizzards rip their way across the Midwest and barrel up the East coast.    Spring Training is a daydream for those who leave work day after day, making their way home through slush.    The Grapefruit League.   The Cactus League.   Palm trees, shirt sleeves, tank tops, citrus blossoms, and seats close to the field.   Pitchers and catchers report.   On Valentine’s Day, no less.

Winter Haven closed its doors to major league players and their fans on March 27, 2008.   “Every time I walk in here,” said Mark Shapiro, “I feel like I’m letting my players down.”    He was talking about the park’s decaying infrastructure, its inadequate batting cages and obsolete clubhouses, bursting water pipes, poor field conditions, maybe even the snake that once crawled through the antiquated plywood press box while a game was underway.   Cleveland had inherited the facility at Winter Haven pretty much by mistake, not long after the Red Sox vacated the property and soon after Hurricane Andrew wreaked havoc on Homestead, Florida in 1992.

“Finding players who have good things to say about training here is difficult,” wrote Anthony Castrovince in the spring of 2008.   Apparently, he succeeded in finding only one such person:   “For me it’s a good place to have Spring Training,” said Rafael Betancourt, a native of Sucre, Venezuela.    “Some people don’t like it, but it’s nice and quiet.”

My visit to Chain of Lakes Park in March 2006 remains a very happy memory.   Stopping briefly in Winter Haven en route to my parents’ winter residence in Vero Beach, I was excited several hours – weeks, actually – before I arrived at the ballpark.   While standing in line at the Thrifty counter of MCO, I felt as if I were  just about the luckiest person on earth.   I’m going to spring training, I kept saying silently to myself, almost incredulous at the very thought.  I’m going to spring training.  Just a little dream come true.   I could not stop smiling.

Start out going SOUTH on AIRPORT BLVD.  Take the ramp toward SOUTH EXIT / SR-417-TOLL.  Stay STRAIGHT to go onto S ACCESS RD.  Turn SLIGHT LEFT onto BOGGY CREEK RD.  Merge onto SR-417-TOLL S / CENTRAL FLORIDA GREENEWAY toward I-4 / TAMPA / DISNEY WORLD (Portions toll).  Merge onto I-4 W via the exit on the LEFT toward TAMPA.  Merge onto CR-557 S via EXIT 48 toward LAKE ALFRED / WINTER HAVEN.  Turn LEFT onto W HAINES BLVD / CR-557.   Take the 1st RIGHT onto S LAKE SHORE WAY / US-17-92 / US-17 S / US-92 W.  Continue to follow US – 17-92 / US-17 S / US-92 W. If you are on E HAINES BLVD and reach N SEMINOLE AVE you’ve gone a little too far. Turn SLIGHT LEFT onto US-17 / SR-555 S. Continue to follow US-17 S.  Turn LEFT onto CYPRESS GARDENS BLVD / SR-540 E.  Take the 1st RIGHT onto CLETUS R ALLEN DR (Gate access required). If you reach 1st ST S you’ve gone about 0.1 miles too far Make a U-TURN onto CLETUS R ALLEN DR.  590 CLETUS R ALLEN DR is on the RIGHT. If you are on 2ND ST SW and reach POST AVE SW you’ve gone about 0.2 miles too far.  Total Travel Estimate:  50.40 miles – about 1 hour 6 minutes.

Don’t you love the parts where the old Mapquest directions tell you that if you’ve done this or that, you’ve gone a little too far? Once upon a time and not so very long ago, it wasn’t easy to get to places like Winter Haven.    You really had to want to be there.

Chief Wahoo was in fact the first meaningful landmark I glimpsed in the bright sunshine of central Florida:  he smiled down on me from the city’s water tower.   I’m not an Indians fan by birth or geography, but I thought, how cool to spend time or reside in a town where you see the logo of your favorite team every single day, towering above everything and bringing added value to the place.

When motoring to Hollywood, Florida back in the 1950s and 1960s in their Buick Electra 225 with the creamy yellow New Jersey plates BPN-195, my grandparents often stayed at Howard Johnson motels.   The ones with the orange roofs and turquoise trim.   The ones where you park your car right in front of the door to your room.  Those motels used to be pretty nice.   The HoJo’s where I spent one sleepless night in the spring of 2006 was an uncomfortable place, and I’m quite sure it wasn’t a very safe situation.  The broken emergency door at the back of the building was unhinged and ajar; the lock on the security fence was busted, the rusty  chain link badly torn.   A couple men who looked to be low-level umpires  living out of the trunks of their cars were smoking cigarettes and shedding layers of gear and random items of clothing behind an eighteen wheeler in the parking lot.   Within walking distance of my second-floor room I found a Quik Stop where I purchased some random food for supper.  The town itself had little else to offer from what I’d seen so far.  Later I would overhear a young baseball wife complain that there wasn’t a Starbucks within miles.

I poured a little wine in my plastic bathroom cup and enjoyed watching the sky grow dark and the palm trees light up in shades of lavender, rose, and gold, the colors cast by halogen bulbs that aimed up the slender tree trunks.   I was a considerable distance from any coastline, and the water glittering in the HoJo pool was murky.

I might have been better off in Arizona.   The Cleveland Indians are probably better off in Arizona.    It seems that everything is now happening in the temperate climate of Arizona.   Joe Torre was in Arizona last week.  Frank Robinson was in Arizona last week.  Fifteen teams now train in spacious venues within the sensible geographic boundaries of the Cactus League, and baseball happens year round in the desert.  Even SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research, recently announced that its headquarters will soon move to Arizona.   From Cleveland.

Arizona is pretty much the future of baseball.   Or so it seems to me.

Almost three years have passed since the Cleveland Indians packed up and left Winter Haven for good.  Here’s what a few fans have to say about the organization’s new state-of-the-art facility at 1933 S. Ballpark Way in Goodyear, Arizona:

Everyone we encountered at the park was very nice . . . the design has all the right seats in all the right places.    They also have a great amount of lawn seating in the outfield. There truly isn’t a bad seat in the place.

… for now, it basically feels like an unfinished Chipotle restaurant.  Fake brown paneling, and lots of silver, gray, and clear tin and other galvanized materials.

The home plate entrance is marked with some sort of flattened baseball sculpture that is just hideous that sits atop a water feature.  The center field gate is horribly industrial and plain and provides little character … all of the seats are close and angled toward second-base.  Even the seats the [sic] flank the foul lines curve in to give the fan a great view.  This is one of the things this stadium does so well.  There isn’t a park in the Cactus League that will get you closer and give you a better sight line than Goodyear.

The practice field for the Indians is almost a mile down the road and closed off to the public (for the most part).  The players then take a bus to the stadium (thanks for goin’ green guys) and are dropped off at the clubhouse (under the RF seats).  When they come out, they appear from two doors (one for each team) in the RF wall and b-line across the field to their dugouts. This keeps the players about as far away from the fans as possible which is really sad to an autograph junkie like myself.  You really have a better chance getting a player to sign hanging out in Scottsdale Fashion Square than you do at Goodyear.  I did see a few of the away team signing so all hope is not lost for them but the Indians players have to walk past the aforementioned plexi-glass that walls off the fans, making it even more difficult.

The first base line seats are shielded with plexi-glass making the fan feel like he is watching hockey instead of baseball.

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I arrived at the ballpark about four hours before the first pitch.   In Winter Haven, that is.  I couldn’t wait to see the field and all its surroundings.   I couldn’t wait for the first home exhibition game of a brand new season.   There was already talk that the old ballpark’s days were numbered, and I wanted to experience this place to the fullest before it was too late.

The long avenue – Cletus R. Allen Drive – displayed colorful banners among the coconut palms, advertising Pronk and a succession of his Tribe teammates.   The modest Drive wasn’t a grand entrance; it might have been a road leading into a trailer park.  Yet somehow the proportions were just about right.   After all, this was camp, wasn’t it?  Parking lots of grass  and dirt extended to my left and right.   My little compact car bumped up onto the dirt.   Mine was the third vehicle in the lot.     Parking was free.

The fellow who waved me in – he had arrived early too -  was one of the most pleasant individuals I have ever met.   A cheerful retiree, he looked as if nothing in life could make him  happier than greeting folks and parking cars in central Florida while the Indians were in town.

As I strolled up the quiet avenue, another old fellow approached in a golf cart.  And then another.   Both slowed down to inquire if I wanted a ride up to the ticket counter.   They treated me as if I were a V.I.P., but I declined their friendly services, wanting of course to walk into the ballpark on my own two feet …  and to experience everything in slow motion.

Bordering the parking lot on my right was a practice field on which a large squad of minor leaguers had gathered in crowded rows for morning workouts.    Their coach barked orders, then paused to shout “hello” to me.   Stretching my arms out as if to embrace the warmth of a Florida morning, I declared that the weather in Winter Haven sure beat what was happening up in Boston.   “Boston?”   he inquired.   “Then what are you doing here?”  I explained that this was just a quick stop en route to my final destination, Dodgertown, where my parents had a winter home.  And then I offered a truer answer, the one I voice most often when people ask what in the world I’m doing in this place or that:   “I just love baseball!”

“This looks a lot like boot camp,”  I declared, surveying all the young players on a broad expanse of dry grass, “and you sound like a drill instructor!”   (I knew what I was talking about, because my 19-year-old son had recently completed twelve weeks of U.S.M.C. recruit training at Parris Island).

“Well, that’s exactly what I am!”  The intimidating coach smiled broadly and then got back to work, shouting at all the rows of young men wearing drab gray t-shirts printed with high numbers:   79, 82, 88, 95, 97.   It wasn’t until much later in the day that I realized I’d been chatting with Ellis Burks.   (His picture appeared in the media guide that would eventually serve as my bedtime story in a silent room at Howard Johnson’s,  just a few blocks from the field.)

No fans were yet milling around the box office or the small souvenir shop that stood to the left and right of the main gate, so I took my time and explored the practice fields,  roaming freely from one to another.    A few snowbirds were shagging balls in the shade of the live oak trees, long balls driven by the big league guys and non-roster invitees who were wearing navy blue practice shirts.   On a more distant field, I watched bunt practice, and beyond that on yet another expanse of sand and grass, a few coaches had gathered along the chain link fence to watch a young prospect throw.

I could look straight into the batting cage, a modest place, smaller than the one at Dodgertown, smaller even than the Future Stars facility where my twelve-year-old son worked out with his club team back home.   I heard playful voices at very close range,  and everywhere the sweet sound of spikes on gravel and asphalt.    Not once did I feel out of place or unwelcome.   Near a side gate of the big-league field, two players stopped to chat with me, one of them excited to hear that I came from the same home town as his mom.     I think he eventually made it as far as Double-A in Akron.

From the top walkway of the stadium, I surveyed the entire camp – its unassuming entrance, all the practice fields, the lake that was home to hungry alligators, the Quonset hut that served as a minor league clubhouse, the young players sprinting and sidestepping and running backwards, directly below me.    From the not-very-high  top deck of the big league field, I had a perfect view of everything backstage, as it were, lots of baseball happening simultaneously, 360 degrees all around, everywhere I looked.

I am in heaven:   That’s the message I texted to one of my baseball friends while pausing on the ramp that led into the ballpark.    One of the very first text messages I ever sent to anyone, incidentally, back in the day when texting was a strange new mode of communication.

As I rounded the ramp and entered the ballpark, an older fellow in khaki pants came out from his spot behind the snack bar and, taking a few seconds away from his winter assignment, he approached me with a smile, welcomed me to the ballpark, reached into his pocket, pulled out a spring training ball, handed it to me, and said,  “Isn’t it a great day!”

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Section K.   Row 6.   Seat 4.     I arrived during batting practice, early enough to watch Jeff Bagwell chatting amiably with Eric Wedge near the home dugout.   I smiled upon remembering how those two had been good friends since playing in the Cape League, then again when they came up together with the Red Sox.   This was to be Bagwell’s final year in baseball, and you could feel it coming.  He would not see another pitch during the regular season.

When it was time for the first exhibition game of 2006 to begin, the mayor of Winter Haven  – a.k.a. City Commissioner – threw out the first pitch.    His name was Nat Birdsong.    Once the public address announcer spoke that name, my day was just about perfect.

CC Sabathia didn’t throw very well in his first outing of spring, giving up 6 runs in the top of the first as I recall, and I was unimpressed, but smart enough to know that those stats didn’t really mean much in the grander scheme of things.   Cliff Lee also worked that afternoon:  two strikeouts, no walks, and a run on two hits over two innings.  I doubt that CC ever thinks about Winter Haven anymore, especially now that he enjoys the rarefied atmosphere and upscale comforts of a majestic  Stadium.

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“Economic development was identified as the most pressing issue facing the city and was the hot topic during Wednesday’s quarterly Winter Haven City Commission workshop at Rotary Park,”  chaired by Nathaniel Birdsong last June 2010.    The city of Winter Haven is poised for change, with Legoland Florida scheduled to open its doors to tourists next October.    Operated by Merlins Entertainment Group and occupying the space that once belonged to Cypress Gardens, Legoland will be a “150-acre interactive theme park dedicated to families with children between the ages of 2 and 12.   With more than 50 rides, shows and attractions, LEGOLAND is geared towards family fun.”

Like Chain of Lakes Park with its obsolete amenities, Cypress Gardens – once a destination  many tourists couldn’t wait to experience – has become a thing of the past, making way for  the booming business of Legoland.  Beautiful young women dressed in antebellum attire greet visitors to Cypress Gardens. The park’s “lush botanical gardens, spectacular water-skiing show and hoopskirt-donning Southern belles” are no more, and perhaps that is all for the best.  

The Lego company logo will most assuredly take the place of Chief Wahoo on the city’s water tower, if in fact it’s not already painted there.   With Legoland in place, the city of Winter Haven will likely see me again; there’s a better-than-average chance that I’ll return someday with a couple grandchildren in tow.  After all, I’ve spent hundreds of hours in recent years enjoying those tiny building blocks.    My boys loved them, my daughter too.   But I loved baseball more.

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There’s one thing I haven’t yet told you about my visit to Winter Haven.     It was the high point of my journey, so I’ve saved the best for last.

Soon after the genial parking attendant greeted me and not long after the guys in the golf carts offered me a ride, I approached the Chain of Lakes ticket window and caught sight of another retiree, an aging man all dressed up in a bright, crisp, white Cleveland uniform, and I thought:  Gosh, look at that senile Winter Haven guy wandering around thinking he’s Bob Feller. I was amused that an old fan in Central Florida would celebrate the opening of a new season by dressing up as his favorite ballplayer; but then I reasoned, hey, nothing wrong with that, let him believe he’s Bob Feller if that’s what makes him happy.

And that’s when I realized that the man in uniform actually was Bob Feller.   A few minutes later, I was sitting by his side at a picnic table near the snack bar, and we were chatting about the Hall of Fame.

The legendary player autographed three 8 x 11 photos for me that day, all of which I would eventually give away – one to my son, the others to close friends.   We spoke for several minutes in a most unhurried way,  during which time I happily mentioned that my sister had given me Feller’s  Little Black Book of Baseball Wisdom for my birthday during a visit to the Arizona Fall League.  Thinking my personal story might please him, I declared that I’d read his book in one sitting, whereupon he gruffly replied,  “Well, it shouldn’t take you very long, it’s a short book.”

At the time I wasn’t knowledgeable enough to know that Bob Feller could be cantankerous  and gruff until he warmed up to you a bit.   Had I known, I might have tried harder to avoid saying something stupid.  When we parted, I thanked him for the privilege of our conversation; he shook my hand warmly and wished me well.

I must be one of the few people in the Boston area who actually misses Winter Haven.  I’m a little weird that way.   Perhaps there are some folks like me in Ohio or Iowa.   Could all this simply be a sign that I’m getting older – this attitude that lots of things aren’t nearly as good as they used to be?

In the end, my opinion doesn’t matter much anyway, does it?   I’m just your ordinary fan like so many others, and our sentiments don’t count for much when it comes to the big decisions and changes in baseball.     The gulf between what was and now is, the gap that separates the anonymous fan like me and those who play the game feels wider than ever.   The guys aren’t milling around open practice fields happy to talk to us.    There’s a vast territory that distances the rock stars from the nobodies; the haves and have-nots; the gleaming new facilities made to look like Chipotle and the old claustrophobic press boxes made of heavy plywood and painted in multiple coats of bright red and blue.

When I stare at my fading Indians ticket stub, I think about Elaine and how happy she once felt at the prospect of all her boys coming back to town.  I think of the parking attendant who is no longer doing his job, and the elderly couples enjoying life at the ballpark, as if on a second honeymoon.   I remember my own modest souvenirs – the plastic motel key welcoming me to Polk County, the media guide and 40-man roster, one simple post card, and three signed photographs.   I remember a picnic table, and a hero named Feller, and a warm place called Winter Haven, and a mayor whose name was Birdsong.

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