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Farewell to Spring Training in St. Pete

The ritual began with the 1914 St. Louis Browns and it ends with the 2008 Rays.

By Marc Topkin, Times Staff Writer
Published February 10, 2008


ST. PETERSBURG

Babe Ruth slept here. So did Grover Cleveland Alexander, Lou Gehrig, Stan Musial, Mickey Mantle, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, Joe DiMaggio (and Marilyn Monroe).

The start of Rays camp this week marks the end of an era, the last year of spring training in St. Petersburg, a tradition that began nearly 100 years ago.

Lured by soon-to-be Mayor Al Lang, the St. Louis Browns were the first spring guests in 1914, arriving a few months after Tony Jannus made the world's first scheduled commercial passenger flight, and a decade before the first of the four bridges that now span Tampa Bay was built.

The Chicago Cubs came by boat from their base in Tampa and beat the Browns 3-2 in the first game, as 4,000 fans paid from 25 cents (for bleachers) to $1 (for a box seat) and filed into the brand new Sunshine Park on Coffee Pot Bayou.

Eight other teams have since called St. Petersburg home, including the dynastic Yankees of the '30s and '50s, the Cardinals of Musial and Gibson, the bumbling Mets and locally based Rays. Twenty-two World Series champions, 11 other pennant-winners and two expansion franchises (the Mets and the Rays) were born here. And dozens of players took their first steps toward superstardom, such as Steve Carlton and Nolan Ryan.

But the Rays are moving next year to Port Charlotte, and whether or not there is a new stadium built on the current site of Al Lang Field, spring training in St. Petersburg is in its final inning.

To many, it's hard to believe. Joe Garagiola, the former Cardinals catcher and longtime broadcaster, put it this way: "It's like losing a friend."