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Remorse before razing

As Clearwater officials get ready to tear down Jack Russell Stadium, one man revels in a golden moment.

By DEMORRIS A. LEE
Published June 5, 2007


Summer baseball campers wait for their lunch break Monday while attending the Winning Inning Baseball Camp at Jack Russell Stadium.
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[Times photo: Douglas R. Clifford]
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[Times photo: Douglas R. Clifford]
Tom Long of Tarpon Springs uses a jackhammer to break bolts out of concrete while removing aluminum seating to be recycled from the stadium. Long and other workers are preparing for the stadium's demolition.

CLEARWATER - Jack Russell Stadium is where the seed to play baseball was planted for Jim Felce.

It is where he has returned countless times as a fan and coach, and it is where one day soon he may see the lights turned off forever.

On Monday, the day Clearwater City Council members signaled their readiness to have the place torn down, Felce recalled seeing Jack Russell Stadium for the first time.

It was 1977, Felce was 5, and his family made its usual trip from Youngstown, Ohio, to Clearwater for spring break. His father wanted to take him to see where the Philadelphia Phillies did their spring training.

But arriving at the stadium, they found it empty.

Felce spotted an open gate and he and his father made their way up the concrete concourse near leftfield, spotting future Major League Baseball Hall-of-Famer Mike Schmidt and Larry Bowa playing catch. They walked around the concourse to rightfield.

"Mike Schmidt pulled me over the rightfield fence, sat me on his knee and signed my baseball," Felce, now 36, recalled Monday, sitting in a small stadium office that once was the Phillies' locker room. "Bowa did the same thing. Can you imagine being 5 years old and that happening? From that moment on, I knew I wanted to strive to be a baseball player."

In as little as 60 days, many of the memories generated at Clearwater's Jack Russell Stadium will come down in a cloud of dust. City Council members said Monday they are ready to demolish the 52-year-old stadium. A final vote will be taken at Thursday's council meeting.

Restoring the facility at 801 Phillies Drive in the North Greenwood neighborhood would be too expensive, said Kevin Dunbar, Clearwater's parks and recreation director.

If the council okays the job, JVS Contracting Inc. of Tampa will have the honors of dropping the stadium, made of steel, concrete and memories. It will cost the city $104,280.

Left at the 20-acre site will be the main baseball field and another smaller practice field. The Winning Inning Academy baseball program will continue to operate out of the former Phillies baseball clubhouse, and the Boys and Girls Club will continue to use a building on the site. Several sets of aluminum bleachers will also remain.

The Phillies moved to its current plush $30-million location on Old Coachman Road in 2004.

Many memories will be left in Jack Russell Stadium's rubble.

There was the time in May 1965 when the Rolling Stones were playing to a crowd of 3,000 teenagers at Jack Russell Stadium. About 200 youths stormed a line of Clearwater police officers throwing toilet paper. Chaos ensued. It is said that Keith Richards awoke in his room at the Jack Tar Harrison Hotel, now the Fort Harrison, with the guitar riff to I Can't Get No Satisfaction in his head. He put it on tape.

Then there was the time in May 2001 when then-City Commissioner Hoyt Hamilton didn't take heed of the yellow caution tape at the stadium. Hamilton fell 9 feet to the ground after a 15-foot slab of concrete gave way. He broke his left foot.

And there are the baseballs that former Devil Rays star prospect Josh Hamilton launched last year as he rehabilitated from drug problems. Hamilton did chores around Jack Russell also, picking up batting equipment.

Felce, of Palm Harbor, went on to be a solid ballplayer, playing several years in the Atlanta Braves farm system.

Now the Palm Harbor University High School teacher works the summer camps at Winning Inning, teaching youngsters the baseball fundamentals. He said he still has fond memories every time he has to walk up the concourse of Jack Russell Stadium to turn out the stadium lights.

"Every time I turn the lights out, I think of that moment," Felce said. "It was such a neat memory."

Of having to turn the stadium lights out for good, Felce said: "It's a little sad for me. I hold a special place in my heart for this place. It's like a little piece of my childhood is gone, too."

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at dalee@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4174.

Fast Facts:

About the ballpark

- Claim to fame: Former home of the Philadelphia Phillies during spring training and the Clearwater Bombers professional softball team.

- When it was new: Replaced Athletic Field, which stood a block east of the Russell site.

- The name: Was named for a former big league pitcher who had a 15-year career with six clubs before becoming a Clearwater city commissioner who pushed for the stadium.

- Original cost: $317,653.

- Opened: March 10, 1955.

- Capacity: 4,744 seats.

 

[Last modified June 4, 2007, 22:48:14]


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