I’d finally made it! All the years I heard about some remote and distant place called Payne Park in Sarasota, Florida, and now I was actually sitting in the worn, weathered, wooden bleachers down the first base line for a spring training game between the White Sox and…I can’t really remember now. All that matters, though, is the memory of that very first trip to otherwise “parts unknown” for this lifelong Sox fan!
Yes, Sarasota was a place that I’d heard about by way of White Sox broadcasters who mentioned the place in their calls of the exhibition games each March. It was never really a place I ever really expected to visit, until I hooked up with the girl who would become my wife in 1975.
We had met a couple of years prior to that, and I was invited to her mom and dad’s condo in beautiful Pompano Beach for spring break in 1974. During the week there, I had kiddingly said that I wished we could see the White Sox play a spring training game, despite the fact that they were located on the other side of the state. Whether it was her wish to please me, or whatever, Carolyn thought it would be a great idea to drive over and watch a game or two. In short, I needed no further “convincing,” and we decided to drive across the state, to the Gulf side, and take in a White Sox spring training game.
Payne Park was a place I’d heard Bob Elson, the voice of the Sox for so many years, talk about many times. I had always pictured spring games as being played in perfect conditions. Once I got to Sarasota and to Payne Park, my mental pictures were confirmed! Despite its ancient condition and appearance, Payne Park was the perfect place for watching spring training in sun drenched afternoons in 80° temperatures. Set in the downtown area of old Sarasota, a stone’s throw to the causeway and on out to the Gulf, Payne Park was easy to get in and out of.
I remember sitting in those old wooden bleachers down the right field line, the Sox bullpen bench a few feet away from us. As the game began, the bullpen filled up with the likes of Rich Gossage, Wilbur Wood, Jim Kaat, and others I can’t recall. I do remember, though, overhearing Wilbur Wood extolling the virtues of the new “Lite Beer from Miller” that was becoming a popular item. Something about fewer calories and such.
I don’t remember much about the game itself, but I do remember the wonderful feeling of just “being” there in the sunshine and warmth of a remote place called Sarasota, Florida. Carolyn and I enjoyed a wonderful day (probably too many beers!) and a great evening in old Sarasota. Payne Park was very good. Ed Smith Stadium came along much later, and it was good as well.
Eventually the Sox moved their operation for spring out to Arizona, and it just hasn’t been the same. Haven’t been out there, and I’m not sure I will. There was, however, something very special about the first time to Payne Park so long ago and the many visits thereafter. I miss it…
See you at the ballpark!