Way back in the glory days of Gophers football, when Jerry Kill’s lads took a 5-3 conference record to the Citrus Bowl, an overriding question was aimed at friends who had made the trip to Orlando:
“How was Tinker Field looking?”
Tinker Field was home to the Twins in spring training from 1961 through 1990, and for the Griffith organization and the original Washington Senators dating to 1936.
There was considerable nostalgic attachment to the place for me, since I was quite the novice to covering sports events in non-Midwest places before being assigned to the Twins beat in 1974 for the St. Paul newspapers.
The football facility kept growing until Tinker Field’s right field was bumped up to the grating that held up one side of the aluminum bench seating for what was then called the Tangerine Bowl.
The Gophers’ visit to the Citrus Bowl came Jan. 1, 2015. There was a strong representation of Minnesotans, and they wound up disappointed with a 33-17 loss to Missouri.
They were not as disappointed as was I with the reviews on Tinker Field’s skeletal remains. Glen Perkins, a former Gophers lefty, was among those taking a look at the Twins’ longtime spring training home.
“What did you think?” I asked Perky. “That place must have been a dump,” he said.
Some photos had been messaged to me, showing the grandstand still standing, but the fences were long gone and the grass was barren.
The mayor had been lobbying to have the place demolished completely. There was some political pressure to preserve Tinker Field as a historic site, mostly because Martin Luther King had made his only Orlando speech there in 1964.
Four months after the Citrus Bowl, the grandstand was demolished and Tinker Field was gone. There went the idea to one day visit the place with the grandkids and show them where Grandpa Patrick did sterling work as a young, hungover baseball writer.
Now comes the good news:
The Orlando City Council this month approved a plan for the Tinker Field History Plaza on the original ballpark site. The working idea is for plaques describing individuals and events important to its history, and other memorabilia.
There’s $100,000 remaining in the Tinker Field demolition budget. There’s another $200,000 required to get started, and then a fundraising effort to make it a first-class remembrance.
On arrival in February 1974, I was struck immediately by the Griffith family’s love for Orlando. Calvin Griffith and his brothers had been there with Uncle Clark way back to the ’30s.
There were tales from Calvin, Jimmy and Billy of one-lane sand roads not far from the city — and the need for a shovel in the trunk, in case you were the person who moved to the shoulder and wound up getting stuck.
The idea of a sleepy Southern town changed in 1971, when Disney World opened, and every low-budget hotel and restaurant chain in America appeared in multiple places. There were now tourists and traffic to deal with, and no interest from politicians for upgrading the Twins’ spring home.
Yet, the team would not have left Orlando for the new, spacious facility in Fort Myers (1991) if Calvin and his sister Thelma Haynes had not sold the team to Carl Pohlad (1984).
Yeah, it was a dump, but those six-week stays in Orlando as a beat writer (1974-78) did cause me to adopt a battle cry that continues today: “Spring training is the greatest invention in the history of American sportswriting.”
Presuming the Tinker Field plaza gets built, my hope is the air-conditioning unit from Calvin’s booth atop the first-base dugout is somewhere in the rubble to be displayed. No matter the steam outside, that unit kept it at about 58 degrees for Calvin.
There should be a mention of the home run a muscular young Philly, Mike Schmidt, hit off Ray Corbin in 1974. Behind left field, there was a substantial parking lot, a city street, a grassy area of park and then a lake. Schmidt hit it into the lake on about two hops.
There also should be a notation of Texas’ Lenny Randle slugging his manager, Frank Lucchesi, during batting practice in 1977. Dallas’ Randy Galloway and I were standing 5 feet away, and he yelped, “Look at this,” and I turned to see Frank going down for the count.
There are 100 other memories that I could share with the grandkids at a Tinker Field History Plaza, although there is an outside chance they would prefer spending that time on another visit to Disney World.
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500.