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LORAN SMITH COLUMN: Spring training sparks new models for team facilities

Loran Smith

Loran Smith, of Athens, the long-time sideline radio voice of the Georgia Bulldogs, writes a regular column.

Lee County has put together a model which is different when it comes to major league spring training sites. In most cases today, the municipality builds a complex that is shared by two big league teams, but here, the county has developed two classy spring training complexes.

At West Palm Beach, for example, the Astros and the Nationals share a brand new facility, as it is with the St. Louis Cardinals and the Miami Marlins, who share Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter to play their games, but each team has separate training facilities. (Of the 31 games in Florida, the Nationals will play 25 games in Palm Beach County, which includes Jupiter.)

The newer model is in contrast to the past when Dodgertown at Vero Beach became the ideal spring training concept. The big league team owned everything from the silverware to the orange trees behind the outfield fence to the golf course. Segregation had something to do with the success of Dodgertown. It also spawned the popularity of the Cactus League on the other side of the country.

At Dodgertown, Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe and the other black players could eat at the in-house cafeteria, play golf at the Dodger owned golf course and their families could swim in the pool. Lately, Florida’s problem has been the destruction that has been brought about by a spate of hurricanes, which have caused budget stress which limits the opportunity to use tax dollars to develop up-to-date stadiums to attract big league teams. Major League baseball seems happy with the fact that half the big league teams train in Florida and half in Arizona; apparently they plan to keep it that way.

The Braves have a classy stadium at Disney, but a bus trip to Clearwater (92 miles) can take up to three hours, which is why it made sense for them to look at the opportunity they have in Sarasota where there are two nearby teams — the Orioles, also operating out of Sarasota, and the Pirates at Bradenton. Tampa (Yankees), Clearwater (Phillies), Dunedin (Blue Jays) and Port Charlotte (Rays) will be a little more than an hour away, depending on traffic. The Braves, in their new digs, will no longer travel the traffic congested Interstate 4.

In Ft. Myers, which is one of the fastest growing areas in the state (now approaching 100,000 in population) the model is a little different in that Lee Country can showcase two class training facilities: Jet Blue Park for the Red Sox and Hammond Stadium for the Twins.

At Hammond Stadium, you will find Byron Buxton of Graham, Ga. (near Baxley), hard at work as he approaches his fourth year in the majors. The Twins’ centerfielder experienced injury after being named “Minor League Player of the Year” in 2013 and being rated the top prospect in baseball in 2015. He seems fit and well. He had to decide between signing to play quarterback for the University of Georgia or enter the baseball draft. He remains a devout fan of Georgia football.

Spring baseball offers a number of options for players and fans alike. There is always an attractive golf course nearby and, if fishing is your passion, you can fill up a cooler in short order from the abundant fresh water lakes or the Gulf or the deep sea.

When you are here, you can check out the museums of the estates of inventor Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, the automobile magnate. Local museums will remind you that the Seminoles, who were forced off their lands years ago, were never defeated. They were too canny and knew intimately the ways of the Florida wilderness and Everglades.

Time spent at Jet Blue Park where the Red Sox train allows for time with Dave O’Brien, the Red Sox television announcer who was once the co-host of the UGA pre-game show, The Tailgate Show. He also worked with Larry Munson on the Bulldog broadcast.

A New Englander by birth, he grew up in a passionate Red Sox household. His father, Robert, lived and died with the Red Sox and never saw his beloved team win a World Series. In 2004, the Sox came from an 0-3 deficit in the playoffs with the Yankees to win four straight for the greatest comeback in league championship history and then swept the Cardinals for their first World Series title in 86 years. Dave not only saw the last game, he called it on the radio.

Walking out of the stadium, he called each of his siblings and emotionally paid tribute to their late father on his cell phone. The ending of the “Curse of the Bambino” was a monumental high for the O’Briens like so many other Red Sox aficionados in New England.

Now Dave, whose daughter Sammy is a Georgia graduate, has one of the most enviable jobs in baseball as the Red Sox television announcer. “But don’t forget,” he says, “I am also a Dawg fan.”