The Kansas City Royals moved their spring training out of Fort Myers in 1988 and landed at the ill-fated Boardwalk and Baseball amusement park in Haines City. The Twins were as anxious to get away from dilapidated Tinker Field in Orlando as the Royals had been to escape rustic Terry Park in the Fort.
Twins President Jerry Bell was able to cut a deal with Lee County to build a complex in what was largely countryside a couple of miles from I-75. The Twins moved in for spring training in 1991, and sellouts were the norm.
This was followed by quite a marketing ploy: The 1991 Twins won the World Series.
The City of Fort Myers, a different branch of government, was feeling left out and went to work on bringing in the Boston Red Sox from their aging facility in Winter Haven, Fla. The Red Sox moved in 1993 to the new City of Palms Park, hard by some low-income neighborhoods.
The Twins went kaput, with eight straight losing seasons from 1993 to 2000. The Red Sox drew well at City of Palms, but the minor leaguers were a few miles away. Clearly, it was chafing the Red Sox new ownership group — a pompous lot led by John Henry — when they saw the Twins with everything together, and with that countryside now turning to commerce.
The Twins were very good in the first decade of the 2000s, but the Red Sox — they won the World Series in 2004 after an 86-year wait, then won it again in 2007.
And they delivered a message to Fort Myers: Build us a new ballpark, surrounded by a full complex for the minor leaguers, or we’re leaving.
Lee County kept the Red Sox with $90 million toward a complex. They started playing exhibitions at Jet Blue Park (aka, Fenway South) in 2012. The stadium is 4 miles east of the Twins’ Hammond Stadium.
The teams couldn’t schedule games in the same time slots because of traffic on Daniels Parkway, the main thoroughfare that serves both ballparks. Makes no difference. Any Red Sox exhibition (they’ve had eight springs of sellouts) guarantees gridlock.
The Twins’ secondary status was now in their faces — as the New England faithful, either visitors or transplants, dominated the bars, restaurants and conversation. The “Sawx’’ lording over their country cousins a ways down Daniels … those were the 2010s.
The Red Sox won two more World Series, in 2013, and again in 2018, with a team that went 108-54 in the regular season and 11-3 in the postseason, whipping three outstanding ballclubs: Yankees (3-1), Astros (4-1) and Dodgers (4-1).
Alex Cora was a revelation as a rookie manager. He was a terrific contrast to the say-nothing, old-school John Farrell. I was in attendance for Cora’s media session last February, the day before the official start of spring training. The questions had one theme:
Were these Red Sox the team to go back-to-back as World Series champions, giving baseball its first repeat champions since the Yankees won three in a row from 1998 through 2000?
There will be different questions when the Red Sox hold that pre-spring training media session next month. And there will be a different manager answering them.
Mark down Jan. 14, 2020, as the dawn of a new decade: the date the Twins stopped choking on the Daniels gas fumes created by Red Sox mania.
A year ago, the Twins became record-breaking, long-ball monsters and won 101 games, while the Red Sox became a full-scale flop — 84-78, a well-beaten third in the AL East.
Which would have set up this as the main question among Fort Myers baseball visitors in 2020: “Can the Red Sox bounce back?’’
Then came Tuesday. The news broke in the early evening that Cora had been fired by the Red Sox, for his key involvement in the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal from the 2017 season. More high jinks involving Cora and the 2018 Red Sox is being investigated and he was looking at a long suspension.
A couple of hours later came more shocking news: Free agent Josh Donaldson, the slugging, 34-year-old third baseman, had decided to accept the Twins’ offer for four years and $92 million, rattling the #cheappohlads cult to their toenails.
This is a new decade and, making the wild assumption Byron Buxton is regularly available, this would be a Twins lineup for manager Rocco Baldelli:
1: Jorge Polanco, SS. 2: Donaldson, 3B. 3: Nelson Cruz, DH. 4: Max Kepler, RF. 5: Miguel Sano, 1B. 6: Eddie Rosario, LF. 7: Mitch Garver, C. 8: Buxton, CF. 9: Luis Arraez, 2B.
Don’t be too offended, New Englanders, if you run into a gaggle of Twins fans at an establishment near Daniels next month and someone in that group bellows, “Your Sawx can eat our diamond dust.”
They will have waited many springs to say that.