Tinker Field’s Fate Likely Sealed by Progress

The other day I learned some troubling news about an old friend.

When I was growing up, this friend and I shared many adventures during the spring and summer months with family and friends.

Sadly, time and neglect have finally taken their toll on my good friend, Tinker Field, and at the ripe age of 91 years old he is facing extinction.

Tinker Field, my good friend, is a ballpark in Orlando, FL that I have written about many times. In fact, one of the very first columns I ever wrote was related to Tinker Field.

It was at Tinker Field that I saw most of my professional baseball games during the 20th Century.

From Spring Training for Major League Baseball, to full seasons of Minor League Baseball, the quaint little ballpark in the shadow of the Citrus Bowl was a unique venue where a who’s who of baseball players played.

In the late 80's and early 90's I saw quite a few Southern League games at historic Tinker Field. Photo R. Anderson
In the late 80’s and early 90’s I saw quite a few Southern League games at historic Tinker Field.
Photo R. Anderson

Think of almost any baseball player from the 20th Century, and odds are pretty good that they stepped foot on the infield grass of Tinker Field at one time or another.

Historic moments at Tinker Field were not limited to just baseball, however. Martin Luther King, Jr. even spoke once at Tinker Field.

The last professional affiliated baseball at Tinker Field occurred in 1999 with the Orlando Rays, who were the Double-A farm team for the Tampa Bay Rays.

While the Orlando Rays were the last of the Southern League teams to call Tinker Field home, they certainly weren’t the only ones.

The Orlando Twins, Orlando Cubs and Orlando Sun Rays were among the many teams to call Tinker Field home.

The Orlando Juice of the Senior Professional Baseball Association even spent a season in the shadow of the Citrus Bowl.

Eventually, it was the shadowy neighbor looming over right field that signed Tinker Field’s death warrant.

A massive expansion is planned for the Citrus Bowl that will greatly widen its footprint. Unfortunately, this widening will creep into right field to the point that Tinker Field can no longer function as a baseball field, due to an outfield depth that would make a Little Leaguer feel like Barry Bonds sending everything he hits over the fence.

So, despite being declared a national historic site, Tinker Field will likely soon meet the fate of many ballparks before it and be torn down in the name of progress.

There is still a small glimmer of hope that the ballpark structure can be saved. There are petitions and social media campaigns already in full swing.

In the event that cries from the Tinker fans fall on deaf ears, a halfhearted attempt to appease fans who will miss the ballpark by creating a new Tinker Field a few hundred yards away on the site of a current softball field has been floated by local officials.

Still, despite calling the new ballpark Tinker Field, there will never be another Tinker Field and every effort should be made to preserve the historic grandstand and related facilities.

If the wrecking ball does come, Tinker Field will become the third ballpark where I attended games at to be torn down. Despite missing Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, and Baseball City Stadium in Haines City, Florida, the loss of Tinker Field hits the hardest.

Tinker Field was where my mom and I spent many afternoons and evenings together watching games, despite it being in a part of town where one did not want to really venture too far away from the safety of the ballpark lights.

This ticket stub allowed me to meet one of my baseball heroes, Earl Weaver, along the third base line of Tinker Field.
This ticket stub allowed me to meet one of my baseball heroes, Earl Weaver, along the third base line of Tinker Field.

Tinker Field was also where I walked onto the field before an Orlando Juice game and met the late Earl Weaver on the third base line.

For a life-long Baltimore Orioles fan like myself, spending a few minutes chatting with the “Earl of Baltimore” on a baseball diamond was like my own Field of Dreams moment.

I met many other players at Tinker Field through the years with some of them making it to the Majors and others relegated to a career of being bused from game to game in the Minor Leagues.

Although I saw numerous Spring Training games at Tinker Field, it was Minor League Baseball that really grabbed my attention and stoked the desires of younger me to work in sports promotions at a ballpark.

During our trips to Tinker Field my mom and I were often joined for a few innings by team president Pat Williams, who was also the General Manager of the Orlando Magic at the time, and I used to think how cool it would be to be a team executive getting paid to watch baseball.

I have yet to fully realize that dream of spending all of my summer nights as a Minor League Baseball employee but I may yet before all is said and done and when I do it will be because of those nights at Tinker Field.

I last visited Tinker Field in 1999 during a University of Central Florida football game. At the time, UCF played at the Citrus Bowl; since it did not have a stadium of its own yet.

During a pregame tailgate, I learned that the souvenir stand at Tinker Field was open, since the Rays were moving to a ballpark at Walt Disney World and the team was selling all of their merchandise to avoid moving it to the new facility.

During my last visit to Tinker Field in 1999 I was fitted by sight for this hat. Sadly, the hat no longer fits but the memory of getting it remains as vivid as ever. Photo R. Anderson
During my last visit to Tinker Field in 1999 I was fitted by sight for this hat. Sadly, the hat no longer fits but the memory of getting it remains as vivid as ever.
Photo R. Anderson

I ended up getting an Orlando Rays fitted cap. To this day, I am amazed that the seasoned ballpark employee correctly guessed my hat size just by looking at me.

I am sure the cap vendor had done the same thing thousands of times but it was fascinating to me that he had that skill.

I don’t know what happened to that vendor but I like to think he lived out his remaining years comfortably after his days at the ballpark were over randomly telling people on the street how big their heads were.

I am also amazed that in the years since my already large head grew to the point where I can no longer comfortably wear the fitted wool cap.

In the end, the Orlando Rays’ time at Walt Disney World was short lived and the team moved to Montgomery, Alabama and became known as the Biscuits.

To this day, there are still no Minor League Baseball teams in Orlando making the decision to tear down a nearly 100 year old Ballpark an easier pill to swallow for some.

Others point to the peeling paint and overworked plumbing as reasons that it is best to raze the ballpark instead of spending money to preserve it and bring it up to current code.

I knew that the day would come when Tinker Field would be torn down in the name of progress. I had hoped that the day was further into the future, but I knew deep down that people in government do not seem to always value their history and often times the bulldozer wins out over preserving the past.

In Houston, people are dealing with a similar potential loss of a treasured sports fixture as the pending demolition of the Astrodome seems all but certain.

In Atlanta, fans of the Braves of preparing for the loss of 20-year-old Turner Field in the name of progress.

A few years back, even Yankee Stadium, of Babe Ruth fame, was torn down. So, I know that the loss of Tinker Field is not totally out of line with the rest of the world of sports, but it is still sad day.

Even though the Astrodome, Yankee Stadium, and Turner Field cannot compete with the intimacy of Tinker Field, fans of those venues are justified in feeling their loss just as strongly.

But as I have said before, the loss of the physical building, while difficult, does not take away the memories that occurred in those facilities.

I can close my eyes and still picture Tinker Field the way I remember it. I prefer to think of it like it was and not like the neglected facility it became.

I guess the morale of the story is to treasure your brick and mortar ballparks while you can while building up memories that can last long after the ballparks are gone.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some ballpark preservation petitions to sign.

Copyright 2014 R. Anderson