ST. PETERSBURG — It's easy to get caught up in the nostalgic relevance of a ballpark that has a history dating back to 1923.
Ray Lankford was never smitten by ghosts.
He was just a kid from Modesto, Calif., when he first popped up here in 1990, looking to become a major leaguer with the St. Louis Cardinals. His idols were guys like Ozzie Smith, Willie McGee, Vince Coleman and Terry Pendleton. He didn't care about Stan "The Man" Musial. He cared about Ray Lankford, Man on a Mission.
"When you're a young man, your main objective was to come in and prove that you belong here, make the team," Lankford said. "You come in here hungry. As time goes on, you appreciate the history of the stadium. When you're young, you're just out there trying to make a name for yourself."
Lankford did just that, making a distinguished run in a Cardinals uniform for 11 seasons during the prime years of a career that stretched for 14 seasons. Having a good mix of power and speed, Lankford had five seasons of 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases (1992, 1995-1998), becoming the only player in franchise history to accomplish the feat more than once.
Lankford, now 42, recently visited the park for the first time since he retired from baseball in 2004. Not much has changed. There are still sunflower seeds, bubble gum wrappers and a few tobacco stains on the green carpet in the dugout, where Lankford is sitting and rekindling memories of his playing days.
The beach was almost as appealing as the ballpark. Lankford would hit the bay to soothe his aching muscles after a game or a vigorous workout. He'd go back to the Hilton Hotel, just across the street, to sleep. Like most spring training sites, St. Pete was cozy and comfortable.
"It was a good place to come and hang out, enjoy the beach," he said.
Lankford looks toward the outfield grass and sees Progress Energy Park on the stadium wall. It's a sign of the times, corporate tie-ins to help keep the place open. It's still used for events and tournaments and training for high school and college teams.
Al Lang Field, built in 1947 for $300,000, is still open for business.
Kids will step onto the field and dream of making a name for themselves. No different than the guy from Modesto, Calif., way back when.
Ray Lankford was one of the most complete players in St. Louis Cardinals history. Known for his combination of power, speed and defensive prowess, Lankford finished his career with 238 home runs and 258 stolen bases. He has lived in Orlando since 2002.
Read George Diaz's blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/enfuego or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.