MAXWELL:  Baseball’s ‘short season’ will live long in memory

3/27/2008 – Printed in the NATIONAL section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

Welcome to “false spring” in St. Petersburg. In case you don’t know, a false spring, an expression popularized by author Ernest Hemingway, is a futile attempt to revive a failed relationship, a longing to regain what was lost.
Short of a miracle, Friday will be the last time a major league team calls Al Lang Field at Progress Energy Park its home. The Tampa Bay Rays, those devils, are divorcing St. Petersburg and moving into their new, $450-million, permanent digs in Port Charlotte.
Say goodbye to a 94-year-old tradition of spring training in St. Petersburg. Affectionately referred to as the “short season,” spring training is a wonderful rite of passage, when men, along with a handful of boys, dream of the Hall of Fame and hone their skills.
Roger Angell, longtime editor and writer for the New Yorker, commented on the ironic significance of this time of year: “Many ballplayers hate spring training – rookies because of the anxieties of trying to win a job, the regulars because of the immense labor and boredom of physical conditioning, the fear of injury, and the threat … of losing a starting position.”
During my more than 12 years in St. Petersburg, I have gone to many games at Al Lang. It’s hard to believe that Friday probably will be my last. Few sporting moments have been more pleasing than sitting in the stands at Al Lang. I loved buying a cold brew and finding a first-base seat. I enjoyed seeing the sailboats against the blue water and feeling the natural air conditioning of a Tampa Bay breeze.
St. Petersburg has been a city of baseball since 1914, when Lang persuaded the St. Louis Browns to play here. Its reputation as a place of loyal older fans became legend.
On March 23, 1962, Angell, one of the nation’s best sports writers and stepson of E.B. White, described a momentous game in always quirky St. Petersburg: “This is Gerontium, the elders’ capital – city of shuffleboard courts, city of sidewalk benches, city of curious signs reading ‘Youtharama,’ ‘Smorgarama,’ and ‘Biblegraph.’ Today it was also the baseball capital of the world, for the game at Al Lang Field was the first encounter between the Yankees and the New York Mets, the new National League team that sprang – not simply full-grown but middle-aged – out of the forehead of George Weiss last winter.”
A paragraph later, after poking light fun at St. Petersburg’s fans, Angell praises them and notes the appeal of their stadium: “St. Petersburg fans are elderly, all right, but they are nosier, keener, and more appreciative than their counterparts to the South. For one thing, they know more baseball. Al Lang Field has for years been the late-winter home of two good teams, the Yankees and Cardinals; when the Yankees moved to new quarters at Fort Lauderdale this year, the Mets moved in to take their place.”
For many fans who attended games during Al Lang Field’s glory years, the end of spring training on the waterfront will leave bittersweet memories – the names of great players, the numbers on their uniforms, their habits and the brilliance of their playmaking.
Angell captured such memories for posterity in a 1968 column for the New Yorker: “There was an overflow, standing-room crowd at Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg for the Sunday game between the Red Sox and the Cardinals on St. Patrick’s Day. I got to the park a bit late, in the bottom of the first, just in time to see Bob Gibson throw a fast ball with his familiar flailing, staggering delivery and (Carl) Yastrzemski slice it to left field, to score a run from third. The deep, sustained wave of noise that followed was startling and sweet; we were back in October, just where we had left off, and that unforgettable World Series had somehow been extended.”
Friday is it: the last Major League “short season” game. And although the memories of Al Lang Field will remain, this is a cruel time for baseball lovers – a false spring.


CORRECTION (3/28/08): In his Thursday column, Bill Maxwell incorrectly stated the cost of the Tampa Bay Rays’ new spring training facility in Port Charlotte. The correct amount is $27.2-million.