(Mike Lortz is a Tampa-based writer currently working on an MBA at the University of South Florida and putting the finishing touches on his first baseball fiction novel. He can be found at @JordiScrubbings.)
I grew up in the mid-1980s on the suburban streets of Long Island, New York. It was an easy time and place for a kid to fall in love with baseball. And I did. I played Little League, played streetball, and on occasion, joined my Dad or my Grandfather on trips to Shea Stadium to see the great Mets teams of the era.
Then in 1987, when I was 10, my family moved to Melbourne, Florida. For the first few years after we moved, Florida didn’t have a Major League team. My father and I had to drive over an hour each spring to see the Mets in their new complex in Port St. Lucie. While Spring Training was fun and allowed me to acquire several autographs, it only lasted two months. By April, I no longer had a local rooting interest and had to rely on WGN, TBS, or the occasional ESPN broadcast to satisfy my baseball jones.
In 1993, Major League Baseball expanded to Florida. While I still rooted heart and soul for the Mets, the Marlins became my local team. Even better, in an attempt to spark interest in Central Florida, the Marlins built their Spring Training complex fifteen minutes from my parents’ house, just outside Melbourne, in what is now Viera. I visited the complex as often as possible that first year, getting autographs and meeting inaugural Marlins such as Benito Santiago, Orestes Destrade, and Bret Barberie.
A year later, Brevard County finished the construction of Space Coast Stadium and the Marlins placed their Single-A team in Melbourne. Featuring 17-year old Edgar Renteria, the Brevard County Manatees finished 78-61 in their first year. Several Marlins and future Marlins made appearances during the '94 season for the Manatees, including rehabbing pitchers Bryan Harvey and Ryan Bowen and prospects Tony Saunders and Mike Myers working their way up to The Show.
Most importantly for me, however, the 1994 Manatees season was the first time I attended a Minor League Baseball contest. Unfortunately, I don’t remember much about the game and there is no Retrosheet for Minor League contests. What I do remember was the fans going nuts for Manatees third baseman Lou Lucca and first baseman Dan Robinson coming through with a pinch-hit single in the bottom of the 10th to give the Manatees the win. I also bought a Manatees hat I wore regularly through my following years in the Army and still have to this day.
Despite leaving Central Florida for the military, college, and so forth, I’ve always kept an eye on the Manatees. Whenever I visit my parents in the summer, I always make an effort to swing by the ballpark to see a game. As I have gone on to bigger and better things, so too have many Manatees, from the aforementioned Renteria and Josh Beckett for the Marlins to Yovani Gallardo and John Axford for the current parent team, the Milwaukee Brewers. The Manatees can even claim two Major League managers, Fredi Gonzalez and Rick Renteria.
Since my first Minor League game nearly 20 years ago, I have written about Minor League Baseball in three books, on two (now three) websites, visited almost every park in Florida as well as Minor League Baseball Headquarters, and interviewed MiLB President Pat O’Conner. I’ve learned, and am still learning the significant history of pre-Marlins baseball in Florida, from the good - setting the attendance record for a Minor League game (57,000 to see Satchel Paige pitch in Miami) - to the bad - forcing Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers to relocate their spring training games from Sanford to Daytona. There are also stories of Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and a young pitcher named Stan Musial. If not for an early interest sparked by the Brevard Country Manatees, I never would have found Florida’s rich baseball heritage.
My goal now is to pass this interest to the next generation. This summer, I took my now 6-year old nephew to his first full Brevard County Manatees game (he saw five innings with a day care camp a few weeks prior). We sat in various places around the stadium, from behind the plate to the rightfield bleachers. We participated in a "Who Let the Dogs Out" kids run from centerfield to third base between the fifth and sixth inning. We started "Let’s Go Manatees" chants. We waved to the players in the bullpen. We ate hot dogs and ice cream. I bought him his first baseball hat. And before he left, my nephew received a hug from the Manatees mascot and a baseball from a Manatees catcher. He said he loved it and he wanted to go back.
I couldn't have been happier.