Special Evening at Jackie Robinson Ballpark

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JACKIE ROBINSON BALLPARK
Daytona Beach, Florida

I recently spent a very special evening at Jackie Robinson Ballpark in downtown Daytona Beach, Florida.  The date was April 9 and the occasion was the Opening Night of the Florida State League baseball season and the inaugural game for the Daytona Tortugas.  After 22 years of being affiliated with the Chicago Cubs, and being known as the Daytona Cubs, the class A club is now a member of the Cincinnati Reds minor league organization and was renamed the Tortugas.

But April 9 held another significant meaning for me.  No, even though this date marked the 150th anniversary of General Lee surrendering to General Grant, thus ending the Civil War, this date was also the day that I met my future wife, Patty – 33 years ago at this very same ballpark.  Not only did I meet her that evening, but I also met my future stepson, Matt, then just 2 years old.  Now, if this wasn’t cool enough, Matt’s future wife, Jennifer, was also born that very same day!  And here we all were, 33 years later, celebrating all these milestones along with other family and friends.

April 9, 1982 – Opening Day – Daytona Beach Astros hosting the Vero Beach Dodgers at then named, City Island Park.  The ballpark was named this since it sat on an island in the Halifax River separating the mainland from the famous beach.  As a ball club, we had won the Florida State League championship in 1981, and I used a telephone campaign to sell tickets to ensure a full house on Opening Night.  Around the third inning, a woman approached me to complain that the ladies room was out of toilet paper.  She went on and on about how terrible a planner or operator I had to be to allow the restroom to be out of paper so early into the evening.  I apologized and assured her I would take care of the situation, but then quickly realized that all my female employees were busy working in the concession stands.  I sheepishly asked her if she would fill the toilet paper rolls if I brought her the supplies.  This led her to chide me even further, but she reluctantly accepted to handle this task, as she realized it was the only way to rectify the situation.  I thanked her, made some small talk and asked her where she was sitting.  I later visited her at her seat, where she was with her adorable little boy, Matt.  I immediately gave her and her son some Astros souvenirs to thank them for being fans and for helping me out.  It turned out that her boss was a major sponsor of ours, and she was using his season tickets.  She came back to just about every game that month and I kept bringing Matt little gifts so I could warm my way to Patty’s heart.  All I can say is that it must have worked because we were married nine months later!

As for the game itself that day, I remember that we were shut out 2-0 and the Vero Beach starting pitcher that day was Sid Fernandez, who went on to have a great career with the NY Mets. I think he struck out about 15 of our batters in the process! It also seems appropriate that it would be a Dodgers’ team that played such a role in my life at that ball park.  It was back on March 17, 1946 that the Brooklyn Dodgers played their AAA affiliate, the Montreal Royals at City Island Park.  And it was on this day that Jackie Robinson played his first professional game as a member of the Dodgers organization as he suited up for the Royals, thereby breaking the color barrier for the first time.  Jacksonville and Sanford had refused to allow the game to be played in their cities due to their segregation laws.  Because of this welcome by the city of Daytona Beach, the Dodgers departed Jacksonville as their spring training home and set up quarters in Daytona Beach for the 1947 Grapefruit League season, before moving to their brand new facility in Vero Beach in 1948, aptly named Dodgertown.

City Island Park was renamed Jackie Robinson Ballpark at a ceremony in 1996, commemorating the 50th anniversary of Jackie’s debut, and was also placed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.  There is a statute of Jackie Robinson on the outer concourse of the ballpark.  The city of Daytona Beach and the Tortugas management have done a very nice job of creating a wonderful fan friendly common area between the banks of the river and the entrance to the seating.  When I was in Daytona running the ball club 1981 -84, there was a road that ran between the river bank and the seating area, which was fenced off next to the road.  The road is gone and that area is now a great gathering place with historic signs and markers, tables, benches, portable vendors and strolling entertainers.

A great place to watch a baseball game, this intimate little ballpark has just over 4,000 seats, with the first base side being an old wooden grandstand with backing, while the third base side is a more modern structure with aluminum bleacher seats, with no backing.  I say modern, although over 35 years old, compared to the other side that is almost 100 years old.  For reserved seating, there are just two rows of seats directly behind the dugouts and ranging from first base to third base.  There is also a big picnic porch out in right field near the visitors’ clubhouse.  The press box sits way up high above the old grandstand and is accessed by a long stairway.

Daytona Beach has a rich baseball history and the residents have always supported their teams here.  Not only did the Dodgers spend that one spring training here, but the St. Louis Cardinals conducted spring training in Daytona 1925 -37 and the Baltimore Orioles, in only their second year of existence, enjoyed the 1955 Grapefruit League season here. The last major league team to call Daytona home for spring training were the Montreal Expos, from 1973 until 1980.  The history of the Florida State League in interwoven into the great history of Daytona Beach baseball, as various affiliates from time to time have all called Jackie Robinson Ballpark or City Island Park home.  I was so fortunate to be here for those four wonderful years in the early 1980s.  The residents of the area and business community supported us so well.  Our team went to the FSL championship series twice, winning it all in ’81; we were able to host “Old Timers” events that allowed me to meet some genuine, warm human beings from baseball’s past; and I was acknowledged by my peers by being honored with two FSL Executive of the Year awards!  But it all pales in comparison to that fateful night 33 years ago, when I met Patty and Matt for the first time…….and the day that one of my future daughters-in-law was being born!