SIDELINE SCENE: The case for investing in a baseball facility in Winter Garden
| 11:27 p.m. July 8, 2015
Winter Garden’s baseball history goes back further than most of its citizens.
It hosted the Washington Senators’ spring training and even a baseball academy. Visiting players stayed at Edgewater Hotel. Central Florida hosted an adult league, and the whole town would gather on Sunday afternoons for ballgames.
Walker Field, which most know as a football facility for Pop Warner’s West Orange Wildcats, was actually the baseball field that hosted all of this.
Sure, this was decades ago and much has changed. But even now, more than a half-century since the Senators left and the baseball academy closed, the town has a unique relationship with baseball. Just last week, a native son, Jake Brigham, debuted with the Atlanta Braves.
So forgive me, because I’m going to (mis)quote “Field of Dreams,” but “all that was once good, it could be again.”
There has never been a better time for Winter Garden to invest in a baseball facility. Actually, I’ll try that again: There has never been a better time for Winter Garden to invest in the facility it already has.
The senior field for Winter Garden Little League at the corner of Park Avenue and Smith Street is literally a stone’s throw from Plant Street Market, a pleasant stroll from the historic downtown.
The genesis for this idea on my end is the Winter Garden Squeeze — but, to be clear, I would never suggest spending taxpayer money on a stadium for a team that plays just two months a year.
To be fair, the Squeeze already has a solid field — Heller Bros. Ballpark, at West Orange High School, a top varsity facility in Central Florida. But it’s also removed from the heart of the community. You’re not getting walkup traffic tucked behind the school — and certainly not the kind of traffic you would with foul balls bouncing on Park Avenue.
The relationship would be symbiotic, too. Seeing the Squeeze would mean seeing downtown Winter Garden — and what fits better with a ballgame than grabbing a craft beer at the Crooked Can beforehand and dinner after?
“It would be a game-changer for the community,” Squeeze General Manager Adam Bates said of the idea. “It would be a game-changer for the team and … the league. The downtown merchants wouldn’t know what to do with all the fans that would go there before the game and after the game.”
The Squeeze is a great product that provides affordable family-friendly entertainment, and if the senior field met the team’s needs, it would be a wild success.
But not just for the Squeeze.
The economic opportunities really make a stadium near downtown worthwhile: local Little League, travel and high-school tournaments, neutral-site college games, spring training for northern teams and maybe even Legacy Charter’s home games as its program begins next spring.
Even a city commissioner agrees.
“Nothing is more all-American than baseball — and I don’t think anything is more all-American than the city of Winter Garden,” said Winter Garden City Commissioner Bobby Olszewski. “If you look at the two coming together in the historic downtown, I think that’s a wonderful fit for our city and for our community. Baseball could really be a catalyst for a true economic-development engine, bringing people from outside (the community) to the downtown district.”
Olszewski was thinking “build it and they will come” before this column was a blip on my radar. Around his first election, he asked the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals about relocating their spring training facilities to Winter Garden along State Road 429. Although that didn’t ultimately happen, the Astros did send representatives to tour the city, and Olszewski went on record in January in favor of a baseball facility near downtown.
“I think if you’re having Major League Baseball teams take a look and at least making a visit, you’re doing something right,” Olszewski said. “I think the entire community benefits.”
So does Bates.
Although he obviously has his second-year franchise in mind, he also is a youth and high-school umpire whose kids play in Winter Garden Little League. He knows the landscape of Central Florida baseball as well as anyone and points to a study on the economic impact of Sanford’s stadium as evidence that this could be a home run for all.
“In 2013, for them to have over 500 events there in 365 days and have over $7 million in economic impact — those numbers don’t lie,” Bates said.
So what would this entail? Well, some basic upgrades would be needed to suit the field to college and high-level high school and travel competition. For starters, the fences would need to be pushed back and the lighting would need upgrades. Dugouts would require more space and a changing area. Seating for at least 800 spectators would be necessary.
The playing surface is second behind the fences in terms of changes. A field would need to be professionally maintained — though Bates said one person could maintain all facilities on that block of fields.
Mind you, this all wouldn’t need to be done at once. With a few bare minimum upgrades, the Squeeze could move in while the city courts others. Another possible location is Veterans Memorial Park across the street, still a short walk from downtown.
If you’re not familiar with the potential of youth sports in economic impact, just look at Disney’s Wide World of Sports — an overflow of travel baseball events that could be directed to the Winter Garden field — or places such as Seminole County, where a fiscally conservative government is investing heavily in youth sports facilities.
What Winter Garden leaders did in the past decade is remarkable. The reinvigoration of downtown, rising property values and unique lifestyle have loaded the bases — and investing in baseball facilities could bring everybody home.
Not some big stadium that doesn’t fit within the city’s identity, but a unique, intimate facility hearkening to its past. Remember, there’s a precedent for this — just consult the history center.
When Terence Mann, played by James Earl Jones, concludes his famous monologue toward the climax of “Field of Dreams,” he tells Kevin Costner’s Ray Kinsella, “People will come, Ray — people will most definitely come.”