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Little League, love of family is legacy

By MARTY CLEAR, Times Correspondent
Published January 11, 2008


WEST TAMPA - Fifty years ago or so, West Tampa was starting to go into a slump, and a lot of kids seemed to be hanging out on the streets with nothing to do.

Frank Mendez had lived his whole life in West Tampa and he loved the neighborhood and its young people. They came up with the idea of building a baseball field and bringing Little League to West Tampa.

"It's not an easy thing to do, but they did it," said his wife, Josephine Mendez. "They built the park and it was absolutely beautiful, just beautiful."

Even now, the West Tampa Little League goes on. It's part of the legacy of its co-founder Mr. Mendez, who died Dec. 30 after a long battle with prostate cancer. He was 80.

In the mid 1960s, the Mendez family moved from West Tampa to what was then the northwestern outskirts of town, around Linebaugh Avenue. But Mr, Mendez never lost his devotion to West Tampa or its teams.

"He loved the children," his wife said. "Anything for the children."

His wife was president of the West Tampa Little League Ladies Auxiliary, and Mr. Mendez managed and coached teams while his son playedcatcher.

Mr. Mendez's father was an immigrant from Spain who came to Tampa to work in a cigar factory. His Cuban-born mother was a homemaker. He attended Hillsborough High School and the Universityof Tampa.

In his early 20s, he was driving around his neighborhood when he saw an attractive young woman.

"He honked at me," Josephine Mendez said. "He saw my long black hair and said, 'I've never seen anything like that in West Tampa. I was from Ybor City. It was love at first sight, I guess."

They married a year later and spent the next 57 years as husband and wife.

He had a brief military career just after World War II, but spent most of his working life with the U.S. Postal Service. He worked as a clerk in the downtown post office for a while, but much preferred his years as a letter carrier.

"He loved to be outdoors," his wife said. "He didn't like to be cooped up."

He retired while he was still in his 50s but never slowed down.

"He always kept busy," his wife said. "He just loved to work."

He took a lot of small jobs in his later years, often helping friends and neighbors with projects around their homes. But his favorite job was ushering at Legends Field when the New York Yankees were in town for spring training.

No matter how much he loved his work and baseball, family came first.

"When I was a kid, like maybe 6 years old," said his daughter, Karen Hambleton, "no matter what he was doing, no matter how busy he was, if I wanted to ask him something, he'd stop what he was doing and pay attention to me."

In recent years, Mr. Mendez's cancer became more and more painful, but it never kept him from his daily activities.

"He wouldn't let it slow him down," his wife said. "He refused. He never complained. He didn't want anybody to know he was sick. He wanted to live his life. He was a fighter."

Besides his wife, and daughter, Mr. Mendez is survived by his son, Frank Richard Mendez, and one granddaughter.

[Last modified January 10, 2008, 23:44:45]

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