UBT 2022 – Day Three

The Carpenter Complex looks vastly different than it did 34 years ago. Mindy and I attended games at Jack Russell Stadium (and other spring training parks) during our honeymoon.

Today’s games are played on Robin Roberts Field, which is just beyond Steve Carlton Field and parallels Richie Ashburn Field. For these rookie league games in the Florida Complex League, you park for free and walk right inside. (For perspective this had been called the Gulf Coast League since 1964.)

Mike Schmidt field features a pitcher throwing a simulated game with a live hitter wearing shorts standing in the right-handed batter’s box with a helmet and bat.

We sit on the single set of abbreviated aluminum bleachers next to the Blue Jays’ on deck circle. This setup reminds me of watching an American Legion game except with professional players and equipment on an extremely well-manicured field.

The Jays’ mini dugout is about fifty feet to our left. Players and coaches stroll past us. A couple of players sit on chairs between us and the tarp-covered, field-level dugout.

Carpenter Complex, Clearwater, FL
Robin Roberts Field at Carpenter Complex, Clearwater, FL

The scoreboard displays the basics (R/H/E totals, the score by inning and B/S/O). There’s no PA announcer or music played. Baseball is truly the focus. We can hear coaches calling to the players and players communicating with teammates. After one inning the Blue Jays’ coaches shout for the team to hustle off the field.

There may be five other spectators at this game. A couple of women behind us cheer when the Jays do something well. Between innings, one gentleman with an umbrella to shade the sun informs us that he attends most of these games. He also shares that he’s the PA announcer for the Threshers. We tell him that we attended last night’s game. He goes on almost apologetically about how poorly they played in the 8-0 defeat. I look back between innings and he’s busy typing player notes on a device.

If I lived here, I would attend every one of these games. This would be my current sweet spot for enjoying professional baseball. These are the new signees, the rawest of professional baseball players. Many are from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. At least one player is just 17-years-old. One of the Phillies’ players is from New Zealand. Mitch looks up each of the players and learns that this New Zealander could have been drafted as a pitcher as well. That’s quite a rarity, especially from a non-baseball region of the world.

Another lefty-hitting Phillie, Jordan Viars, hails from Plano, Texas. His arm sleeve features a cross. The Phillies selected him in the third round of the 2021 draft. With two strikes, he picks on a high pitch and laces a double in the gap. I know next to nothing about this young player, but I’m happy for him. Just like the players I coach, I want them all to perform well.

Jordan Viars, Phillies
Jordan Viars, FCL Phillies, at bat

The Jays win 4-2, but the Phillies leave the go-ahead run at the plate when the game ends. It’s exciting, well-played baseball without distractions.

After sitting in the 90-degree sun on aluminum bleachers, we retreat to a local Latino restaurante called Huarache Azteca. This may have been the best carne del cerdo (pork) burrito I’ve ever had. Mitch commented that you know you’re in the right place when you’re the only native English speakers.

Soon it’s time to roll south to Bradenton. We cross the iconic Skybridge and arrive at LECOM Park an hour early. Fortunately, we notice Magnanimous Brewing directly across the street from the neighborhood ballpark. This small satellite brewing location boasts a fairly modern building featuring a good-sized U-shaped bar, a handful of tables and lots of taps.

Magnanimous Brewing, Bradenton, FL
Magnanimous Brewing Tap List

Mitch and I grab stools at the bar along with three couples and scan the beer menu. I decide on the Juice Lord IPA, their signature IPA, although a few IPAs catch my eye (and thirst). The couple nearest us talk Mitch into the bourbon barrel aged imperial stout called Space Turtle. It’s a ten-ounce pour due to the alcohol content. I follow up with a Hazy Road double IPA pint before we re-cross the street to the ballpark.

LECOM Park exterior, Bradenton, FL
LECOM Park exterior, Bradenton, FL

Mitch had played on this field during his Pirates Fantasy Camp days. He shares fun memories of being here many times, including when Michael Jordan debuted as a baseball player on March 4, 1994.

While we walk around soaking in the ballpark, the Lakeland Flying Tigers go ahead early, 2-0. Our seats are front row behind the plate, but we sit in the fourth row for a better angle of the pitcher-catcher-batter-umpire dynamic. We both notice a very light crowd for a Friday night. In fact the announced attendance is only 825.

LECOM Park, Bradenton, FL
Action from 3B side, LECOM Park, Bradenton, FL

Before the Flying Tigers hold on for an eventual 7-4 win, Mitch strikes up a conversation with a bearded gentleman sitting alone in front of us. He lives in Jacksonville, his two teenage sons play ball, and his wife is from York, PA, so we have a lot to discuss over the final two innings.

After the game we linger to chat with a couple of employees who comment on our UBT shirts. They thank us for making LECOM Park part of our 2022 itinerary.

UBT 2022 – Day Two

Thursday, July 28

Today’s schedule includes an early ride into Ybor City and the Al López homestead, which houses the Tampa Baseball Museum. As we seek a place to park the car in front of us slows and then stops to allow a few free-range urban roosters to cross the street. Of course they aren’t using the crosswalk, but we ignore their pedestrian faux pas. Street thugs!

Street Roosters, Ybor City (Tampa), FL
Street roosters roaming Ybor City (Tampa), FL

My mind immediately goes to “Why did the roosters cross 19th Street?”

Street rooster, Ybor City (Tampa), FL
Street rooster roaming Ybor City (Tampa), FL

Apparently they’re everywhere, at least enough of them to have a sign posted at the parking lot entrance.

Street Rooster Sign, Ybor City (Tampa), FL
Street Rooster sign, Ybor City (Tampa), FL

After a few more poultry one-liners, we arrive at the museum.

Tampa Baseball Museum, Tampa, FL
Tampa Baseball Museum, Tampa, FL

A Cuban-American, Al López became the first Tampa native to reach the majors, enjoyed a Hall of Fame managerial career (culminating in his induction in 1977), and won a pair of pennants while ruling the bench. The well-respected manager of both the Indians and White Sox led the Indians to 111 victories in 1954 and the Go Go Sox to 94 wins in 1959.

The woman who greets us at the museum is a wealth of knowledge of both Al’s family and the baseball history of the area. (She’s also the CEO of the local historical society and is the first woman to speak in this video.) Surprisingly, the museum has only been open since September, 2021, as you’ll learn from the video link above.

I don’t want to spoil this unique baseball treasure in case you’d like to spend some time here. It celebrates all of the teams and players from this area (going back to the 1800s) with a large focus on Al López, because he was the first Tampa native to join the big leagues. It’s definitely worth the time for baseball nerds (like Mitch and me) who especially enjoy the history of the game.

The woman is helpful with a lot of information, including recommending Columbia for lunch a few blocks away. Opened in 1905 this is Florida’s oldest restaurant. Since there’s a wait for a table, we decide to take the other Yelp-er’s advice and lunch at Duffy’s Sports Grill.

Duffy’s is a chain peppered along both Florida coasts that appears to be a typical sports bar, except it’s all times ten. The place features dozens of TVs and full-size college football helmets from every team surrounding every booth. We’re seated, and guess what’s directly behind Mitch?

Mitch at Duffy's Sports Grill, Tampa, FL
Mitch with the Pitt helmet at Duffy’s Sports Grill, Tampa, FL

Mitch informs the young man that seats us, “With hundreds of helmets in here, you seated us at my alma mater.” Without missing a beat, he quickly responds that he did it on purpose.

Mitch enjoys a Mahi Mahi sandwich while I order the Shrimp Po Boy special and a couple of Jai Alai IPA pints by Cigar City Brewing.

On our way back to the hotel we stop at Mitch’s nephew’s wife’s business, St. PetersBARK. (I love the punny name!) Neither relative is on site, but we browse through the doggie treats and toys. All of the employees are busy with customers, so I take a photo of Mitch with the store sign so he could send it to them as a surprise.

St. Peters Bark, St. Petersburg, FL
Mitch in front of St. Peters Bark, St. Petersburg, FL

BayCare Ballpark is less than 30 minutes away so we leisurely trek to Clearwater, arriving well before first pitch. Little do we know that tonight is Craft Beer Night, the only such night scheduled during the entire month of July. (More UBT magical timing! I can just hear Harry Carey asking, “How about that?”) We taste a few and chat with some brewers before settling on something we each really like. All 24 oz. pours are only $3.75! I can’t remember the last time I paid that price for a ballpark pint, much less 24 oz.!

Threshers Times
Threshers Times – July 28 edition

Our UBT shirts attract a husband and wife who became season ticket holders this year. They live three miles away so it’s a convenient night out of entertainment for their family with reasonably priced food and drink. They also walk occasional laps around the ballpark for exercise.

Mitch and I take a pre-game stroll around the concourse and on the walkway beyond the outfield. There’s even some grass seating available between the outfield fence and the walkway. Picnic tables dot the outside of the walkway beyond left and right fields.

BayCare Ballpark, Clearwater, FL
BayCare Ballpark from RF line, Clearwater, FL

It’s a modern minor league ballpark a long homer’s launch away from the Carpenter Field Complex, tomorrow morning’s destination for Florida Complex League rookie baseball.

Before the first pitch, we concentrate on ordering ballpark fare to complement our discounted craft beverages.

BayCare Ballpark feast, Clearwater, FL
BayCare Ballpark feast, Clearwater, FL

The Threshers, Single-A Phillies Florida State League affiliate, lose 8-0 to the Dunedin Blue Jays. As we discover, this game is part of a day/night split twin bill due to a Tuesday rain out so the teams only play seven innings.

In the parking lot we’re greeted once again by the enthusiastic season ticket holder couple. They ask how we enjoyed our BayCare Ballpark experience. We thank them for their welcome earlier in the evening before parting. More baseball (in two different cities) tomorrow!

UBT 2022 – Day One

Learn more about the background for our UBT tradition, which began in 2005 after Mitch Mansfield and I struck up a friendship while playing baseball with former big leaguers in 2004.

Wednesday, July 27

Mitch leaves his cottage along the Allegheny River at 8 AM, which is plenty of time for our 3:44 flight from HIA to St. Petersburg. Suddenly, plenty of time becomes almost won’t happen! Mitch is idled for more than an hour behind a serious traffic accident in the Lewistown Narrows. With Mitch still an hour out and sitting still, I decide to leave for HIA to check in and be ready. Mitch is finally up to speed while I’m arriving at the airport.

Over the years we’ve experienced minor setbacks from a classic NYC traffic jam to storms threatening game play. These inconveniences pale when compared to the UBT magic that always seems to find us. From rubbing up game baseballs with the umpires before a game in South Bend, IN, to being honored as VIPs in Madison, WI, UBT magic always surprises us. Both of us express that if UBT 2022 isn’t supposed to happen, then we would accept it. The odds could finally be turning the other way.

I check my bag and go through security. Every time I fly, my first priority when I get to my gate is to see whether a plane is on the other side of the glass. Today, the plane we’re supposed to take hasn’t yet arrived. Suddenly our boarding time shifts from 2:40 PM to 3:10 PM! Mitch texts that he’s two miles from the airport. UBT 2022 is off to a shaky start, but quickly hits its stride.

I wait for Mitch to come through security. Both of us immediately reflect back to UBT 2013, when I flew to O’Hare to meet Mitch and begin a 2,500 mile, eight day, nine game trip across the upper Midwest. Soon after we left the airport in Chicago, Mitch’s truck suffered a flat tire. We laughed it off, and soon were celebrating the 25th anniversary of Wisconsin’s New Glarus Brewing Company on the way to our first game in Madison.

Mitch asks me, “Do you know the girl at the Allegiant desk downstairs? When I checked my bag, she said, ‘Brian’s already upstairs waiting for you.’”

After we board, two passengers, one in front of me and one beside Mitch, pepper us with suggestions for pizza and craft beer during our trip. They almost battle to one-up each other – dueling Yelp-ers! Along with Mitch and I catching up on family and what we’ve been up to, this made our flight go quickly.

After retrieving our bags, we head for the rental car counter. Two customers are in front of us. The man heads for the lot. The woman in front of us has rolling luggage. The assistant finishes her paperwork and instructs her to “go out these doors, go right for 110 yards, and an attendant will greet you in the lot.” You’ll see why this is important in a moment.

When we reach the counter, the female assistant tries to persuade us to “Take the Camaro!” several times. We curiously ask if she receives a commission if we upgrade to the Camaro, but she shakes her head, “No” and smiles. Suddenly, the woman who received the explicit instructions returns in a huff, says she can’t walk that far with all this, and immediately cancels her car rental. My mind drifts to Steve Martin’s car rental scene in “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” except instead of snow, this scene featured sweltering temperatures and humidity.

After securing our SUV (following the instructions to a tee) we take the advice of one of the Yelp-ers and head directly to The Nona Slice House in Safety Harbor. He had recommended Detroit Style, which I love.

Mitch and I order Death by Pepperoni and add mushrooms. We are not disappointed. We enjoy the guitarist while Mitch downs a couple of Big Storm TENFLARE Red Lagers and I nurse Marker 48’s Hazy River IPAs. We toast the gentleman who steered us to Nona.

Besides our lengthy conversations, there’s no baseball scheduled for this evening. We find our hotel and pretty much collapse following a long day of lots of moving parts. We have much to look forward to over the next few days.