Tinker Field, Orlando
Spring training memories: From Babe to Bush, Tinker's history runs deep
Bill Becker, a former grounds keeper for for Tinker Field when MLB's Minnesota Twins made Orlando, FL their spring training home, looks out over the field reflecting upon the memories when professional baseball was part of the community. (GARY W. GREEN, ORLANDO SENTINEL / February 18, 2010)
The blue bleachers are faded and splintered, the urinals could use a heavy dose of Pine Sol, and the palm trees at the entrance are about the only things that stand tall.
Bill Becker doesn't see that.
He looks at Tinker Field like an old girlfriend you still admire. He remembers the good times. He hears Minnesota Twins owner Calvin Griffith screaming at him because the pitching mounds are eight inches too high. He sees Twins slugger Harmon Killebrew rifling opposite-field shots toward the adjacent Citrus Bowl. He sees lions and tigers on the outfield grass. He sees snapshots of his life, clear as yesterday.
"There was no Disney World, there was nothing here," Becker said, touring the empty stadium recently. "They were big stars. And this was the big attraction."
Tinker Field made the National Historic Register in 2004, but it was a bittersweet honor, like giving a dead actor a lifetime achievement award.
The glory days are long gone, and hardly anyone appreciates Tinker Field for what it meant to Orlando back in the day. Becker is one of the few exceptions. He started coming here in March 1969. The Twins put him on the grounds crew, and then he bounced over to the cleanup crew, before shuttling over to Melbourne for a few years to work with the Twins in their minor league operation.
He left the Twins in 1976, but Tinker stayed right in his sight lines. He was hired by the City of Orlando to oversee a number of facilities, including the baseball stadium.
There aren't any skeletons buried here, but if there were, "Beck" — as Griffith called him — would know where they were.
He has seen a little bit of everything here, including an overflow crowd in 1975 to see Hank Aaron, the soon-to-be-crowned home run king. The crowd was so big that they were allowed to watch from the warning track, precariously close to the outfielders. There were about 6,000 people there that day, about 1,000 over capacity.
He looks at the wooden seats and fondly remembers "Mr. Griffith," who had the seats shipped down here after Griffith Stadium closed in 1961. Becker looks over to the home team dugout that has one of the first "skyboxes" in sports history. It's not much, just an add-on atop the dugout. "There's a toilet in there, and that's about it," Becker said.
A lot of history has been flushed away here, too, unseen, unheard by a new generation of fans.
Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig played here, as did Michael Jordan during the time he fancied himself a baseball player in 1994. The Bahia Shriner's Circus came here regularly for 23 years. Martin Luther King spoke at a rally in March 1964 before a crowd of about 2,000. George W. Bush came to town for a campaign stop at Tinker in 2000.
By then, the stadium was a ghost town for spring training. The Twins left after the 1990 season for better digs in Fort Myers. The City of Orlando had tried to circumvent the move by making plans to build an adjacent complex that would include dormitories, offices and fields for the Twins' minor league teams. The design would mirror the innovative feel of Dodgertown in Vero Beach.
But when the Twins asked for more land, the city balked and the Twins walked. The land was eventually developed and is now called the Orlando Sports Complex, used by Jones High School, along with other recreational sports groups.
Not much goes on at Tinker now. Lake Highland Prep uses it as a practice facility and for home games. A few flag-football leagues have traipsed through here as well.
But mostly, Tinker sits empty in her solitude.
On rare days, she sees an old friend like Becker, and for a few moments, everything sparkles again.
Bill Becker came to Orlando in March 1969 as a 19-year-old kid working on the grounds crew. Although he left the Minnesota Twins seven years later, he stayed in Orlando as a manager overseeing Tinker Field until he retired in 2004. He now lives in Indialantic.
Read George Diaz's blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/enfuego or e-mail him at email@example.com.