Can you imagine Major League Baseball in Downtown Orlando?
Listening to the crack of the bats, smelling hot dogs and cotton candy, watching the outfield lights illuminate the city skyline on a warm, spring night. Ah, this is baseball.
The sad thing is that this shouldn't be a dream. Once upon a time, this was reality for Tinker Field — the spring training home for the Cincinnati Reds, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the defunct Washington Senators, who would later become the Minnesota Twins.
Ironically, another MLB team in Washington — the Nationals — continued talks with Osceola County commissioners Monday to relocate its spring training home to Kissimmee while Downtown Orlando continues to be a distant afterthought.
I realize the odds of professional baseball returning to Orlando as about as great as Dwight Howard and Shaquille O'Neal becoming tea and crumpet buddies, but I can't help thinking about the missed opportunity for Downtown Orlando.
The Washington Nationals, managed by Orlando native and resident Davey Johnson, should be here before Osceola County or any other city on the fringes of Central Florida.
But the cold truth is that the city of Orlando isn't ready for these kinds of opportunities. City leaders have got enough infrastructure issues and renovations to address before shifting their focus to the broken-down palace that is Tinker Field.
Which begs the question, what will become of the historic Tinker Field? Is it destined to be a dilapidated field of nightmares for eternity or will it ever be restored to its earlier glory?
"At this point, we're not sure," said Orlando Monarchs owner Rickie Weeks Sr. The Monarchs, a franchise in the Florida Collegiate Summer League, are one of the few baseball tenants using the Downtown ballpark. "We're going year to year [on our lease], but what year are we going to be cut off and no longer have Downtown baseball?"
No plans have been finalized for Tinker Field, said Orlando venues executive director Allen Johnson. But there is a fear among tenants that the field will fall down even farther on the list of city priorities once renovation of the Citrus Bowl starts next February. Tinker can potentially be used as temporary storage space during Citrus Bowl renovations, which are expected to last through Nov. 1, 2014.
Some wonder if the uncertain future for the field threatens its very existence. While the field generated $133,361 in net income during the 2011-12 fiscal year, sporting events alone accounted for a $182,952 loss, according to the city's numbers.
But Tinker Field's value as a sporting complex far supersedes money to people like Weeks, who has two sons who play professional baseball. He, along with business partners Mark Popkin and Monica Arango, purchased the Monarchs with the understanding this team would not be a money-making venture, but rather an investment into keeping the history of baseball alive in Downtown Orlando.
The Monarchs aren't a professional baseball team, of course. But they are keeping a baseball presence in Downtown for now.
Weeks, Popkin and Arango, along with community sponsors, spent $15,000 on field repairs last season to prepare for the Monarchs' opening season. They painted the outfield walls green, added new carpet to the locker rooms, cleaned the concessions area and did whatever else was necessary for beautification of the venue.
On July 27, which coincidentally happens to be the birthday of Joe Tinker, for whom the field is named, the Monarchs plan to host a Salute to Roberto Clemente weekend. Clemente is said to have played at the field years ago. So did other baseball greats, including Jackie Robinson.
The Monarchs hosted the community's first-ever Salute to Jackie Robinson during this past weekend, retiring his jersey numbers 42 (Brooklyn Dodgers) and 5 (Kansas City Monarchs).
But you won't see the jerseys hanging anywhere on the premises. The Monarchs are not sure if the team will even be able to rent the space next season with Citrus Bowl renovations looming around the corner.
"There's a lot of folks that feel Tinker Field is dead and I'm not wanting to let that happen," Popkin said. "Tinker Field's got a ton of history and it's important to preserve it."