(This post originally appeared on Bus Leagues Baseball.com)
Hundreds of years ago, Ponce de Leon explored and discovered what is now called Florida. Although legend says he was in search of the legendary Fountain of Youth, history (and Wikipedia) says he was looking for “the Isles of Biminy”. According to the almighty wiki, de Leon first landed on the East Coast of Florida, somewhere between present-day Saint Augustine and Melbourne Beach. After a few days, he and his crew went south along the coast of Florida, along the Florida Keys, and then back up the west coast, landing again somewhere between present-day Port Charlotte and Tampa Bay, although some historians even claim he got as far as Pensacola.
Almost exactly five hundred years later, another intrepid explorer, Ben Hill of MiLB.com, made a Florida journey, coincidentally visiting many of the same towns and areas set foot by De Leon and his mates. Whereas De Leon however came up unsuccessful in his quest for gold and riches, Hill found exactly what he was looking for: the Diamonds of Florida.
Of course, the diamonds Hill found aren’t the financial kind, although they are priceless to the people who live by them. They are the grass and dirt of Florida’s many Minor League Baseball fields and they are chock full of quirks, traditions, communities, and memories. And Hill gave a great sample of them to his MiLB.com readership.
To begin his Sunshine State trek, Hill first went to Minor League Baseball Headquarters in St. Petersburg, where he visited their player card catalog, toured their library, and took pictures of their amazing displays. I visited MiLB Headquarters a few years ago when I interviewed the Minor League Baseball President, and I really think Ben nailed the mystique of the building and awe of the work the people behind the scenes do. They have a huge job in keeping the Minors together and they do a fantastic job.
After MiLB HQ, then it was down the road to Clearwater, where Ben experienced the sheer majesty of the Threshers’ 70’s Night featuring Disco Inferno. Longtime readers of Bus Leagues Baseball might remember when I took in 70’s Night in full ‘fro.
From Clearwater, Ben made his way south along the West Coast of Florida to Fort Myers where he took in the sights of Hammond Stadium and Miracle baseball. There he talked to Cub Scouts, ate a hot dog, threw out a first pitch, and raced on an inflatable horse. That’s a good day Ice Cube would be proud of.
Then it was off to Port Charlotte to see the Charlotte Stone Crabs, tour the facility, dress up like a sumo wrestler, and eat another hot dog.
Leaving Port Charlotte, Ben made his way inland to the town of Lakeland, where he caught a Flying Tigers game, was surrounded by local school kids, and toured another facility.
After Lakeland, Ben again went opposite of Ponce De Leon’s journey and headed east a few hours to Daytona and historic Jackie Robinson Stadium, where he saw team tattoos, met Front Row Joe, sang a tune, and ate some nachos.
Last, but definitely not least, Ben visited the newest Florida team, the Pensacola Blue Wahoos. With an amazing Gulf of Mexico view, the Blue Wahoos are finding great early season attendance success and Ben highlighted their service-first attitude, in the stands as well as in their drinks.
As the sole Florida State League writer for this here corner of the baseball blogosphere, I really enjoyed Ben’s tour. I think he did a great job capturing the essence of baseball in Florida. Unfortunately, I was not able to meet Ben in his journey, but seeing his pictures sure brightened my days here in Afghanistan and gave me a little piece of home.
Maybe next time, Ben.