ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. – There were duties calling in this fine city on Friday morning, and I arrived with an hour to spare. This caused a detour toward the water to check on the condition of Al Lang Field, a favorite ballpark for several decades during visits to spring training.
What I always liked about the St. Pete ballpark was what players disliked about it. The average wind seemed to be 10-to-12 miles per hour, meaning even on hot March days it was comfortable. And there was very little roof over the grandstand, so you could sit out on the bench seats and get a full blast of sun.
Hey, if you’re from Minnesota and spending time in late winter in Florida, you have to take a good baking when it’s available. And doing so while watching a ballgame is perfection.
As for the athletes, and particularly the outfielders, the combination of wind and the highest of skies on what always seemed to be blue days with a few puffs of clouds at Al Lang – well, it was easier to corral a fly ball in that haunted area of Teflon in medium left-center in the Metrodome.
St. Petersburg first had spring training with the St. Louis Browns at a ballyard called Coffee Pot Park in 1914. The man leading the charge to make this happen was Albert Fielding Lang, a Pittsburgh transplant dedicated to convincing major league teams that Florida – and particularly St. Pete – was the place to conduct spring training.
Coffee Pot Park was supplanted by St. Petersburg Athletic Field on the waterfront. The Yankees also built a ballpark, Huggins Field, adjacent to the Crescent Lake area of St. Pete. It still stands and is home to high school and college games.
The Cardinals were the tenant at Athletic Field starting in 1937. Then, it was torn down after 1946 spring training, and replaced by Al Lang Field, and both the Cardinals and the Yankees played their home exhibitions there.
The Yankees were gone for a year in 1951 and replaced by the New York Giants, then returned in 1952 and remained through 1961 before moving to Fort Lauderdale.
The Mets moved in and shared the Al Lang exhibition schedule with the Cardinals. My first spring training was in 1974. The Twins were in Orlando, and there usually would be two trips to St. Pete – one to play the Cardinals, one to play the Mets.
Get there early, get a few pregame quotes, hack out half of a story, spend four or five innings in the wind and sun, then hack some more; yes, an afternoon at Al Lang was one of the reasons that, as I stated years ago, “Spring training is the greatest invention in the history of American sports writing.’’
The Mets left after 1987 and were replaced for five years by the Orioles early in the 1990s, and then the Cardinals left for a new ballpark across the state in Jupiter in the 1998. The hometown Rays took over Al Lang as the sole tenant in 1998.
You don’t get much of a spring training vibe when the ballpark where you play 81 games in the regular season is 1 mile from the ballpark where you’re playing exhibitions, which is the distance from the Rays’ dome – Tropicana Field – to Al Lang.
The Rays decided to go to Port Charlotte and have an actual spring training starting in 2009. The Twins and the Red Sox were happy to see a new occupant of that complex, since it’s now a short hop north from Fort Myers to play the Rays in exhibitions.
Spring training in southwest Florida will get more convenient next spring when the Atlanta Braves move into a facility in North Port, 15 minutes from the Rays’ ballpark.
We have digressed a bit from my advertised visit to Al Lang Field, but I didn’t want to rush right into the terrible news.
The saddest sight I had seen previously in Al Lang Field was in November 1989. The Vikings were playing the Bucs across the causeway in Tampa, and it coincided with early part of the schedule in the fledgling Senior Professional Baseball League.
Jim Morley, a 33-year-old real estate investor, had managed to put together an eight-team league in Florida. The teams would play 72-game schedules between November and February, with rosters of former major leaguers 35-and-over.
Over 2,000 former big-leaguers were contacted and an amazing number signed up, with suggestions of salaries of $5,000 per week and perhaps higher. Many of the willing players were from the first generation of free agents. They had gone from a little money to substantial money, and too many then were fleeced by slick-talking financial parasites.
Several Twins were ravaged financially by a bad guy named LaRue Harcourt. He wound up going to prison, but that didn’t do much to assist clients such as Bill Campbell.
“Soup’’ was one of my favorites when I covered the Twins, and to see him at 41, in uniform at Al Lang for the Winter Haven Super Sox against the St. Petersburg Pelicans, with maybe 250 people in the stands, and already knowing in his heart that the only thing he would get out of this pitching was exercise … that was distressing.
The Pelicans brought a championship in February 1990 to Al Lang Field, but the league shrunk and disintegrated early in season two.
On Friday, I drove up a road to a roadblock behind the right-field fence, then went to a parking lot on the third-base side. The grandstand structure looked more substantial than I remembered.
And then I saw this emblazoned above the entrance: ROWDIES.
It was spelled out, yellow on green, above a line that read “Al Lang Stadium.’’ I was aware "Rowdies'' was a traditional nickname for Tampa Bay soccer franchises.
Al Lang Field, named in honor of a man devoted to bringing spring baseball to Florida, basically a godfather of the Grapefruit League, has become a soccer stadium. Has been for a few years, apparently.
There remains a plaque that stands outside the entrance. It has a likeness of Al Lang and describes him as "Florida's Sunshine Ambassador to Major League Baseball.''
Inside, there are hooligans running around in their shorts, desecrating this baseball ground …and the only time they will look into a high sky is when they are rolling around, trying to convince the ref to give them a penalty kick.
Al Lang Field. Soccer. It's not right.