Memories and Baseball

Memory plays a dominant role in our baseball lives: it is the sport’s “comfort food”. Whether it be playing catch with a parent, visiting our first major league stadium, making the varsity, hitting a first home run, throwing a shutout or even remembering the pitch sequence in our last at bat, most of baseball resides in memory. As one ages, memory transforms to history.

Terry Park, circa mid 1920’s

Roy Hobbs baseball is at the apex of baseball fantasy. We all wanted to play in the majors. For five splendid weeks thousands of men (and quite a few women) live fantasy lives on fields green, lush and pure in their red clay majesty. Standing historic, humble and proud among them is Terry Park, arguably one of the most famous ballparks in America.

In the early 20th century Dr. Marshall Terry and his wife Tootie McGregor Terry donated 38 acres at the edge of Fort Myers for public recreation and use. Terry Park’s site was first a golf course, then a racing track and football field before, in 1925, it was finally devoted to baseball with a 1,500 seat wooden grandstand built to be the winter home of Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics. Its success in attracting tourists and their money set the stage for subsequent local and state-financed endeavors which would result in the other facilities Roy Hobbs’ uses today.

The history of ballparks is one of transformation, from open fields, to fenced in diamonds, to wooden stands to the concrete and steel stadiums we know today. There aren’t many wooden ballparks left. Terry Park is the rare example of a wooden park transformed into a concrete and steel facility. The wood flooring in its present-day pavilion is a wonderful, if subtle homage to its former wooden grandeur.

Seventy years after it was built, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995 after serving as a Spring Training facility for the Athletics (1925-36), Cleveland Indians (1941-42), Pittsburgh Pirates (1955-68) and Kansas City Royals (1969-87). Four World Champions (Athletics 25,26; Pirates, 60; Royals 85) practiced there. It’s older than the Hall of Fame and has witnessed 80 HOFers play, manage or umpire over the years.

Its glorious history is scarred, however, by some very difficult years which followed baseball’s desegregation. While Jackie Robinson was taunted, Roberto Clemente, especially, endured continued segregation and humiliation from fans and local leaders during his time there with the Pirates.

But the ballpark, itself, cannot be blamed. Its integrity is intact, as the field’s location has never been altered. You pitch from the spot once occupied by HOFers such as Catfish Hunter or Whitey Ford; you stand in batters’ boxes once occupied by the likes of Cobb, Ruth, Mazeroski and Brett.

Terry Park, circa early 2000’s

My memories of Terry Park are vivid. First was a visit in the early 80’s to see a Royal’s Spring Training game. Sitting in stands beyond left field, my friend got heat stroke and we left in the 5th inning. The ride back to St. Pete was long but bucolic as there was little development and plenty of grazing fields full of cattle. I also played in the “Sweet 16 Roy Hobbs and had one of my best adult games in that wooden ballpark.

The next year, 2004, the decaying wooden stands were demolished. Fortunately, local leaders restored the grandstand and dugouts to their present form, leaving that hallowed field intact. Recently, they’ve decorated the grandstand entrance with banners commemorating each HOFer’s first year’s game appearance.

The pavilion is intimate, but ample and can be quite raucous, depending on the team. This year’s combined attendance for 54 games was 862. I counted fans and always announced “Today’s World Series attendance is…!” to bemused laughter. The average score of this year’s games was Visitor 8 Home 7 with Visitors holding a slight edge of 28 wins, 26 losses.

When I interviewed with Tom for a job, he asked if I ever sold food. When I told him I could announce, he took the hint and said he needed someone for a field called Terry Park. I think he was surprised when I enthusiastically jumped at the chance: “I know that place!” So many fans and players are enamored of Jet Blue and Century Link with all their glitter and excess. Not me. Each visit to Terry Park excites, as I think of the ghosts occupying that place. I’m told by Lee County staff that Roy Hobbs is the only group to use the sound system. I’m proud to say I’m now “The voice of Terry Park”.

Players and fans in the younger divisions, especially, seem almost indifferent to its charms and history. But as the older divisions arrive, the vibe changes, the interest increases. The brief history I announce over the ballpark’s PA is definitely met with rising interest, applause and thanks as the weeks wear on. It’s not at all unusual to see older players posing in front of those banners and speaking in reverent tones about their boyhood heroes. Quite often, players will slowly walk the grandstand or head to home plate, camera in hand, clicking away, storing wonderful memories.