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Stadium may fall, but memories remain

As the city weighs Jack Russell Stadium's fate, one man recalls his past

By DEMORRIS A. LEE
Published June 6, 2007


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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.

They spotted an open gate and made their way up the concrete concourse , spotting future Major League Baseball Hall-of-Famer Mike Schmidt and Larry Bowa playing catch. They walked around the concourse to right field.

"Mike Schmidt pulled me over the right field fence, sat me on his knee and signed my baseball, " Felce, now 36, recalled. "Bowa did the same thing. Can you imagine being 5 years old and that happening? From that moment on, I knew I wanted to be a baseball player."

In 60 days, many memories generated at Clearwater's Jack Russell Stadium will come down in a cloud of dust. City Council members said 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 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 drop 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 operating out of the former Phillies baseball clubhouse, and the Boys and Girls Club will continue to use a building on the site.

The Phillies moved to their current $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 . 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.

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.

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 baseball fundamentals. He said he still has fond memories when he walks up the concourse of Jack Russell Stadium to turn out the lights.

"Every time I turn the lights out, I think of that moment, " Felce said.

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.

[Last modified June 5, 2007, 22:33:05]


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