West Tampa's golden triangle of baseball
Baseball was not invented in West Tampa. It only seems so. Back before Tampa became "The Next Great City" and sports arenas began popping up like mushrooms around the region, there was a golden triangle of baseball that probably began around Cuscaden Park in Ybor City, swung up to Belmont Heights and reached out to West Tampa, to the field across from McFarland Park. Major leaguers have been here for decades. Meander in front of the University of Tampa's Sykes School of Business and you'll see a plaque marking the spot where Babe Ruth planted what was said to be the longest home run ever hit during a spring training game. Across Tampa Bay, inside the angled, air-conditioned arena known as the Trop, our very own Tampa Bay Rays are in the American League playoffs.They beat out the likes of the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees to get there. West Tampa baseball What's going on there as the Rays battle the Texas Rangers is a world removed from summer days and nights in West Tampa and Ybor, where baseball once was almost a way of life. In his biography, "Sweet Lou," Lou Pinella says: "People watch me play and think I get excited. They should have seen my family play.'' That was life in West Tampa. I got a letter this week from my old friend, Emilio Diaz, who was a tad worked up: "(Rays players) Evan Longoria and David Price felt that fan attendance, or lack thereof, was something 'that had to be said' to the world ... without so much as a thought about the impression the world derives about the character of our community. ... This community loves baseball and their home teams. "I remember the social clubs in Tampa having teams which made up the intersocial leagues in the 40's. Later came the Tampa Smokers and the Havana Sugar Kings and then the Tampa Tarpons. "This community demonstrated its feelings when they stood in line for hours to get free tickets when the millionaire owners gave them away as damage control for the havoc these ... comments caused.'' You get the picture; a passion for the game rooted in the culture of parts of Tampa. This year, Art Keeble published a book with former newspaper columnist Mary Jo Melone: "Baseball was my Life - Stories from West Tampa.'' Keeble is the city's arts guy; his other passion is baseball. Deviled crabs and beer It's a book best read while working on a hot deviled crab and a cold beer. It recalls characters from those baseball leagues and how many added so much not just to Major League Baseball but to our lives. I think Tampa City Councilman Charlie Miranda sleeps with his glove next to his pillow, hoping to get into a game. The names roll on. ... Al Lopez, Tony La Russa, Tino Martinez, Fred McGriff, Dave Magadan, Dwight Gooden, Gary Sheffield... Families wrapped their lives around baseball, be it social leagues at Cuscaden or packed crowds at Belmont Heights and West Tampa Little League fields, where you were likely to find an entire family. It's still there. If you want a hint of this area's passion for baseball take in a game at West Tampa Little League. Buy a deviled crab and sit in the bleachers. That's baseball, Tampa style.
Columnist Steve Otto can be reached at [email protected]