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RIP, Chain of Lakes Park

Our noses have been buried in our next three book projects; hence the lack of postings. Here’s some updates from the last month, beginning with the sad news that Winter Haven’s Chain of Lakes Park, former spring-training home of the Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians, has been torn down–but baseball will still be played at the site.

This was not an unexpected outcome: the city has given up years and years ago in attracting another MLB team for spring training, and given the relatively decrepit condition of the ballpark and training facility, upgrades were never financially feasible. The ballpark was going to be torn down; it was just a matter of when.

Chain of Lakes Park opened in 1966 as the spring home of the Boston Red Sox, who trained there until 1992, departing for Fort Myers and City of Palms Park. The BoSox were replaced by the Cleveland Indians, who trained there until 2008 and a departure for the Cactus League and Goodyear Ballpark. It was a small, scenic facility that just screamed old Florida, with the training fields on the shores of Lake Lulu and located just up the road from the delightful Cypress Gardens.

But Cypress Gardens Boulevard is now filled with fast-food joints and theme hotels, and Cypress Gardens have been subsumed by Legoland. Chain of Lakes Park wasn’t a great training site–the low-lying practice fields were plagued by standing water after a decent rain, and the ballpark itself featured very little in the way of comfortable seating.

The site will continue to host baseball, however: Winter Haven is spending $20 million to install four diamonds for youth-tournament play, along with amenities like batting cages, clubhouses and fan seating. There had been plans for a more ambitious redevelopment of the site, but in the end those plans cratered and the city went with the safer route with a proven track record in Florida economic development.

Let’s hope there’s some sort of memorial erected on the site. Our most lasting memory of Chain of Lakes Park has little to do with BoSox or Indians players, but rather with the continuation of one of baseball’s great traditions. Attending a Cleveland spring-training game meant a chance to observe and meet the great Bob Feller, who even in his later years donned a uniform and set up a table at the front entrance of the ballpark before games, selling autographed photos for $5. It was pretty amazing to the former teenage phenom–who made his MLB debut on July 19, 1936, as a seventeen-year-old after his junior year of high school–still so connected to the game and his fans.

We covered the topic in more depth on Spring Training Online.

RELATED STORIES: Florida Sports Tourism: Successfully Recycling Old Pro Ballparks

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