Here’s something you may not have known: in the mid-20th century, the city of Winter Garden played host each spring, and some winters, to the Washington Senators and their minor league affiliates — most notably the Chattanooga Lookouts.
Players stayed downtown at the Edgewater Hotel and played games on the old Walker Field.
In simple terms, the city welcomed in ballplayers from afar for a few weeks to a couple of months each year.
In a sense, that tradition was resurrected this summer.
The particulars were a little different — college ballplayers came for the summer as opposed to pro ballplayers for the winter or spring.
The jerseys said “Winter Garden” and “Squeeze,” as oppose to “Washington” or “Chattanooga.”
The team played its games at West Orange High School as opposed to the old Walker Field.
But, the essence of things were the same — the crack of the wood bat, the cheer of the crowd.
It was baseball. Winter Garden has a baseball team.
If you read this publication — and, more specifically, its Sports section — on a regular basis, than you know we have made a point of covering the Squeeze throughout the summer.
We made a point of covering them — and covering them well — throughout this inaugural season in the Florida Collegiate Summer League.
As Sports Editor, the extent to which we cover anything largely falls under my discretion. I chose to cover the Squeeze to the extent we did for a reason, mainly my belief that the team and the city are a natural fit and this could very well be the start of something really cool.
In the context of sports, when you think of Florida you probably think ‘football.’
Orlando? Basketball — or, more recently, maybe it’s soccer?
But when it comes to West Orange County, and more specifically Winter Garden, I think ‘baseball.’
And it’s not just because of the history between the city and the game.
Winter Garden’s baseball identity is as evident now as ever — Jesse Marlo’s program at West Orange has become a powerhouse, with players annually graduating and heading off to high-level college programs and even the pros.
The Winter Garden Little League 12-year-old All-Star team has had a run of three-consecutive state tournament appearances and, if not for one bad inning two weeks ago, may very well have been on the road to Williamsport, PA.
It’s a city and area rife with baseball talent and passion — and, as of this past summer, it’s a city with a team.
If you didn’t make it out to the ballfield to watch the Winter Garden franchise this summer, as the Squeeze ended their season in the FCSL Playoffs this past week, then I’ll give you a the “SparkNotes version” of what you missed out on — a competitive, entertaining, family-friendly ballpark experience.
Common sights at Squeeze games, aside from the actual baseball on the field, included kids running the bases between innings and engaging in no-holds-barred races for foul balls.
The roster featured a mix of players, some with local ties, playing their high school ball in the area, to a large contingent of ballplayers from Texas and the Southwest United States.
Some of the team’s most loyal fans were the couples who opened up their homes to these young men visiting from afar as host families.
To be sure, attendance at Squeeze games had its good nights and some sparse crowds, too On the whole, there is plenty of room for improvement.
The reasons are aplenty: a number of people still may not know the team is there, or, if they do, they might not know what exactly the product is.
West Orange’s baseball field, first class as it is, is a bit off the beaten path, tucked away on the school’s campus, so there’s less of a chance of drawing in curious passerby’s.
Sunday day games are really hot, and there’s a stretch of the season where it’s a coin-flip each day as to whether that night’s game would be rained out.
Balancing that out, though, were the beautiful Florida sunsets that took place during nearly every evening game and the fact that, in winning more than they lost, the Squeeze were competitive and fun to watch.
So, sure, there’s plenty of work to be done and General Manager Adam Bates and FCSL President Rob Sitz have probably got a host of ideas for how to better the product for 2015.
The important thing to takeaway, though, is that the Squeeze will be back in 2015. Sitz and Bates seemed determined to have this franchise, like the ones in Winter Park, DeLand, Leesburg and Sanford, stick around.
Summer baseball staying in Winter Garden is something we’re excited about, so we’ll keep the coverage coming — in 2015 and beyond.