God willing and the creek don't rise, I'll be in Fort Myers tonight for nine days of observing the Twins in spring training. I made my first visit to spring training in 1974, in Orlando as the Twins' beat writer for the St. Paul newspapers, and I've missed only once since then.

That was 1990, when Clem Haskins' Gophers surprised by advancing to the Southeast Regional in New Orleans. That had been my scheduled week in Orlando, but following Willie Burton, Melvin Newbern, Richard Coffey and Co. was worth that void in my spring training streak.

I can say that even though Coffey tumbled into the front press row in pursuit of a loose ball, flipped over and kicked me in the head with both of his large sneakers. This moment could be seen for the next 10-15 years on TV ads for a sports bloopers tape.

Coffey's mad dash occurred during the Sweet Sixteen victory. Coffey told me in the festive postgame locker room: "Rick Bay (the Gophers AD)  told me at halftime that he would give me $50 if I did that again'' ... meaning, kick me in the head.

Coffey and I had a good laugh over Bay's halftime quip, even if it didn't warm the relationship between me and the AD.

The Twins had trained in Orlando since the 1930s when they were the Washington Senators. Disney World was just getting started in 1974 and Orlando still was a sleepy town. The airport was a Quonset hut where you waited outside for bags to be retrieved in one area maybe 20 yards long.

It's not like that anymore in Mouse Ears territory.

Calvin Griffith and his family loved Orlando, even though the training site included only tiny Tinker Field, and a small field in the back. The Twins minor leaguers trained a couple of hours away in Melbourne, a place known without affection by former farmhands as "The Rock,''  in honor of the lousy maintenance of rockhard ball fields.

Jerry Bell, hired as president by Carl Pohlad in 1987, was placed in charge of finding a better spring training situation for the Twins _ a place with room for both the big leaguers and the minor leaguers.

The city of Fort Myers had been unwilling to spend for improvements to ancient Terry Park, so the Kansas City Royals vacated Southwest Florida for a beautiful new stadium at a theme park _ rebranded from Circus World to Boardwalk and Baseball.

The B & B theme park opened in 1987 and lasted only until 1990, The Royals trained out there surrounded by nothing for another dozen years. The Royals headed for Arizona, the stadium was torn down in 2003, and that was that.

Meantime, Bell cut a deal with Lee County to build a Twins' complex in what was then countryside between the city proper and the airport. The Twins made the move in 1991 and won the World Series that fall.

Making Fort Myers a second headquarters has been one of the best things ever done by this organization. And it's going to get better for fans at Hammond Stadium and for the minor leaguers who can be found there year-round with the $40 million facelift now available in a new lease deal with Lee County.

This will be year 23 in Fort Myers. I actually made two visits for spring training in 1995: first, in March with the comical "replacement players'' that the owners were trying to use in the battle with players, and then back in April after the strike was settled and the real guys showed up.

One of my more humorous spring training moments came on the second visit. The Twins were playing the White Sox in Sarasota and the late, great Jerome Holtzman, called "The Dean'' for his status as the senior Chicago baseball writer, asked for a tip as to what Twins column he should write.

"I'm always writing about our Chicago guy, Kirby Puckett,'' The Dean said. "What else do you have?''

I said: "Chuck Knoblauch. He's made himself a better player every year. He might be the best second baseman in the American League.''

"Where is he?'' The Dean asked.

"The guy out there on the infield with a beard,'' I said.

Next thing I saw was The Dean approaching Scott Leius. Sraightened out by Leius, The Dean was soon sitting in the dugout with Knoblauch, where Chuck was showing The Dean how to use his own tape recorder so the interview could be conducted.

The Dean was a beauty. Some day, I'll tell the story about him, his old Teleram computer and the SuperGlu in the 1991 playoffs. For now, allow me reiterate the motto that I adopted early in my Orlando years:

"Spring training is the greatest invention in the history of American sportswriting.''

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