BY MATT LaWELL
PORT ST. LUCIE, Florida | Twelve teams play in the Florida State League, all of them separated by four hours or less on Florida highways, all but one of them tenants in a stadium used during spring training by their Major League affiliate. That means seven months in the same cities and the same stadiums, big and beautiful and very much designed for something other than High-A baseball.
The Florida State League is unique in minor league baseball. Where most other leagues stretch across states, it is contained within one. Where most other league are populated with moderate stadiums of conservative size, it is filled with video boards and thousands of extra seats. And where most other leagues are able to devote 12 months every year to their primary product, most folks who work for Florida State League teams work for the parent club during two crucial months every year.
Look at Alex Kushell, for example. Kushell started with the St. Lucie Mets last summer and is now their manager of media relations and their public address announcer. He is 24, a recent graduate of the University of Miami, skilled already and still learning every day. In most markets, he could have focused on his first full season with his team all offseason. But with the Mets, his attention shifted in February and March to spring training, to Johan Santana and David Wright. Not that he minds. Kushell is a pro. He also grew up in New Jersey — a Mets fan, naturally.
“We enjoy having them around for spring training,” he says. “With that said, ... spring training definitely is busier. There are a lot more people around, there’s a lot more staff around, there are a lot more tasks on an everyday basis.”
"Spring training definitely is busier. There are a lot more people around, there’s a lot more staff around, there are a lot more tasks on an everyday basis.” — Alex Kushell
Kushell is hardly the only team employee in the league to have extra responsibilities. In Jupiter, Dave Albrecht and Juan Dorado, who handle media relations for the Hammerheads and the Palm Beach Cardinals, respectively, worked with media from Miami and St. Louis, in town at Roger Dean Stadium to cover the Marlins and the Cardinals. They worked in the same office, but they worked with players and media they might never see again after the season started. In Port Charlotte, Grant McAuley spent more time with the Tampa Bay Rays than with the Stone Crabs. A veteran director of broadcasting and media relations, he was still able to project 19 of the 25 players named to the roster.
The experience is just as different for players like Mets outfield prospect Cory Vaughn, who has stuck around Port St. Lucie and Digital Domain Park long after other players have gone off to New York, Buffalo, Binghamton, Savannah and Brooklyn. “The first time I came here, I sat in the corner with some other minor league guys and didn’t say a word,” says Vaughn, the son of former Major League all-star Greg Vaughn. “I didn’t want to be the guy drinking all of the Gatorades and waters that they pay for in the fridge. I just sat there and minded my own business.”
The only Florida State League that is able to prepare for the season all through February and March is the Daytona Cubs, and even they open Jackie Robinson Ballpark for college games. All of which just means that folks all over the league have to prepare a little earlier, work a little more efficiently, from Labor Day through New Year’s.
“You do still have an opportunity to transition to and focus on your entire minor-league season,” Kushell says. “Seventy home games and 140 games total.”
The St. Lucie Mets capped 1988, their first season in the Florida State League, with a sweep of the Osceola Astros in the League championship series — one of just two FSL teams since 1969 to win a crown in their first season in the league. Can you name the other team?
On the field Monday night, St. Lucie center fielder Darrell Ceciliani hit a home run high over the wall to the berm in right to help the Mets rally for a 6-5 win over the Charlotte Stone Crabs. Mets catcher Francisco Pena and leftfielder Cory Vaughn — the sons of former Major Leaguers Tony Pena and Greg Vaughn, respectively — also homered in the win. Tampa Bay Rays outfielder B.J. Upton started a rehab assignment and played the first of what is expected to be at least three games with the team. He batted 0-for-2 but did drive in a run in the first thanks to a ground out to short.
In news off the field, the impending execution of David Alan Gore landed on the front page of the St. Lucie News Tribune on Monday and will likely remain there — and on the front pages of newspapers around the state — the rest of the week. A former auxiliary sheriff’s deputy who confessed to kidnapping, strangling and killing six women in Indian River County in the early 1980s, Gore is scheduled to be executed at 6 p.m. Thursday at Florida State Prison in Starke. Gore will be the second person executed in Florida in 2012 and the fourth in the last seven months.
The last year has been filled with round numbers and big celebration in Port St. Lucie. The city was incorporated on April 27, 1961, and celebrated its 50 anniversary throughout 2011. The New York Mets, meanwhile, will mark the 50th anniversary of their first game — a loss, of course, for those Lovable Losers, followed by eight more before their first win — on Wednesday. No word on promotions in St. Lucie, but up in New York, fans can purchase a limited number of reserve tickets for $2.50, the same price they would have paid back in 1962.
Want the answer? The 1994 Tampa Yankees also won a Florida State League championship in their inaugural season. That team featured Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, among other future Yankees and a dozen future Major Leaguers.
And in random statistical news, the game started five minutes later than the scheduled time, the first pitch was hit foul, the first batter tripled and an organ recording of the “Star-Spangled Banner” lasted 1 minute, 14 seconds. Also, we didn’t eat any hot dogs, but did eat some chicken cordon bleu and three pieces of vegetable pizza leftovers from an Easter dinner with friends.
Want to read stories about the other teams on our schedule? Click here and scroll to the calendar.