The very first time the Winter Garden Squeeze took the field for a Florida Collegiate Summer League game, they had company.
Kids attending the game were invited to run out on the field with the players and stand by them during the National Anthem.
Once a game, between innings, they get to run the bases.
Crush, the team’s mascot, maneuvers through the crowd frequently, posing for photos and high-fiving youngsters.
Oh, and there’s some pretty good baseball going on down on the field, too.
That combination of family-friendly, fan-oriented entertainment and good ol’ baseball played by amateur athletes chasing their big league dreams is the formula that has Squeeze general manager Adam Bates optimistic about the first-year franchise’s future in Winter Garden.
“This community is a community of young families,” Bates said. “I wanted to have my family multiplied at these games … it’s going to grow, it really is.”
The growth Bates describes would really be more of a continued growth of sorts. The idea of having a franchise in West Orange County, and more specifically Winter Garden, was a seed in the minds of people like Bates and league president Rob Sitz years ago that has grown from thought to reality over the past several months.
“It’s really a kind of surreal experience because I know Adam and I have been talking about it for a long time,” Sitz said at the Squeeze’s home opener. “It’s a good atmosphere here, a lot of people showed up.”
Though the stands at West Orange High School, which the Winter Garden franchise is calling home for its inaugural season, are small relative to some of the league’s other ballparks, they provide an intimate atmosphere that translates well to the league’s emphasis on interacting with fans between innings.
That much was on display for the team’s opener, which played host to roughly 250 fans. As the season progresses, the challenge for Bates and his staff of interns will be to create a bond between the fans and the team — a sense of ownership and a rooting interest for the individual players.
That shouldn’t be too hard, as what’s not to like about a group of young guys (a few of whom are hometown players) who are spending the summer chasing their dream and trying to get noticed by big league scouts.
There’s no million dollar signing bonuses here — just college kids, some of whom are living with host families here locally.
Of course, the players aren’t the only ones with whom fans will have a chance to build a rapport with — or the only ones chasing big league dreams. The league has, for years now, been a stepping-stone for its interns who get to help run the day-to-day and game operations for the ballclubs.
“It’s huge,” Sitz said, referencing the value of the experience for the interns on staff. “I think that’s [a] part of the Florida League that we don’t talk that much about but we want every person in this league to go to the next level — and that includes the interns. …
“A big part of it is them getting the experience that they get here — we let them run the games.”
The hope for this Winter Garden franchise is that it will develop to the level of franchises like the ones in Leesburg, DeLand, Winter Park and Sanford (College Park is, like the Squeeze, relatively new to the league in only its second season of existence).
Those teams draw good crowds and provide a nice option for families and sports fans alike to consider for their summer nights. And, if there was something to take away from the Squeeze’s first two home games, it’s that the potential for a quality FCSL franchise in Winter Garden is certainly there.