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The end of the road for Reds in Sarasota


T he last pitch was a fastball that Cincinnati Reds pinch-hitter Drew Anderson took for a called third strike. It was 4:28 on Thursday afternoon. Spring training baseball at Ed Smith Stadium was finished this year and, perhaps, for good.

Over the stadium speakers, Willie Nelson sang, “Turn out the lights, the party’s over. They say that all good things must end.”

Must it?

“This is sad,” Sandy Herrick said while standing in front of a seat in Section 111.

Herrick and his wife, Pam, have held season tickets to Reds spring training games every year since the ball club arrived in 1998.

“We’ve missed maybe one game,” Herrick said. “It’s awfully sad.”

Sarasota has been a spring training site almost every year since John McGraw and his New York Giants arrived in March of 1924. The city is finished as a major league spring training destination unless it can attract another team.

If it does, and that seems unlikely given the community’s response to efforts to land the Boston Red Sox, then Ed Smith Stadium is surely out of luck. Any team that comes here will want a spanking new stadium with all the bells and whistles.

Tired, old Ed Smith Stadium comes up short there.

Only 2,935 showed up for the final game. It was the lowest crowd of the season, a fact that could be attributed to winter residents leaving town after their leases ended March 31.

Or, it could be a sign of protest from the area.

Sarasota mayor Lou Ann Palmer was booed during a pregame ceremony. She presented Cincinnati president Robert Castellini with a key to the city. Castellini dropped the key.

“It seemed like the mayor was surprised when she was booed,” Herrick said. “But she was on the team that didn’t get it done.”

Herrick lives in Nokomis. He and Pam couldn’t vote to keep the Rays in Sarasota. They wished they could.

Going to games at Ed Smith each spring is like visiting family, they both said.

“I feel bad for Sarasota,” Herrick said.

John Ringling used his friendship with McGraw and brought spring training to Sarasota.

The first stadium was built on land donated by Calvin and Martha Payne.

Residents came together Oct. 27, 1923 and carved a baseball diamond out of dirt and constructed a grandstand.

The defending National League champion Giants beat the Cardinals 6-4 on March 15, 1924.

The Red Sox would replace the Giants. The White Sox would replace the Red Sox. The Reds would replace the White Sox.

The Dodgers even came over for a handful of games in 1959 to help fill the gap after the Red Sox left and before Bill Veeck brought his White Sox to town.

Through the years, a parade of Hall of Famers came to Sarasota to kick off the winter’s rust and prepare for the long season ahead. Players like Frankie Frisch, Ross Youngs, George Kelly, Bill Terry, Fred Lindstrum, Rogers Hornsby, Bobby Doerr, Joe Cronin, Nellie Fox, Early Wynn, Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove, Luis Aparicio and, of course, McGraw.

Don’t forget Ted Williams, who used to practice hitting baseballs at Payne Park and practice fly casting in the breezeway next to Tucker’s Sporting Goods on Main Street.

In his book, “Spring Training in Sarasota, 1924-1960,” author Jeff LaHurd captured the essence of spring training when he described attending Red Sox games with his uncle. It’s kids wearing their Little League uniforms, drinking RC Cola and dreaming of one day playing alongside the stars on the field.

The Reds are the third team to leave Florida to train in Arizona during the past two years, joining the Indians, who left Winter Haven, and the Dodgers, who left Vero Beach, after last March.

The Rays left St. Petersburg for Port Charlotte this spring, meaning four traditional spring training cities in Florida are now dark, so to speak.

The Reds helped close Al Lang Field last spring. Jonny Gomes was the only player to wear the home uniform in both games. He was an outfielder for the Rays last season and an outfielder/first baseman for the Reds this year.

The Pirates helped the Reds say goodbye to Sarasota on Thursday. Pirates first baseman Erick Hinske played right field for the Rays in the final game at Al Lang.

The visitors won the Ed Smith finale 6-5. There were five errors in the game that took 3 hours, 17 seconds to play.

Lincoln Holdzkom threw that last pitch by Anderson.

Kids lined up behind first base to run the bases one more time after one final spring game.

Fans snapped pictures before they left.

The Herrick’s were one of the last to leave.

Sandy said it almost felt like he was attending a funeral.

“We won’t have to do this anymore,” he said. “It’s a big loss.”

Fans, many wearing red T-shirts with the words “Sunset Season” printed on the front made their way toward the parking lot beyond the left field fence. They walked under a sign that said, “Thanks for coming. C you later.”

The “C” was the Reds logo.

Actually, they won’t see the Reds again.

At least not in Sarasota.

And it doesn’t look too good that they will see another team train there.

The tradition started by McGraw and his boys long, long ago in a stadium that no longer exists ended with that fastball from Holdzkom.

Strike three.

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