Monday, August 1, 2011

Talking Tarpons with Tampa blogger Clark Brooks - Part 1

(This post originally appeared on Bus Leagues

One of the more interesting sports folks I've met since I moved to Tampa, Florida is local blogger Clark Brooks. Clark has been around Tampa sports since the mid-80’s and has worked with the nearly every professional sports team in the area. Although I have known Clark for a few years, after he told me recently that he got his start working for the Tampa TarponsTampa’s old minor league team, I knew he and I had to sit down for a chat.

This is a two-part interview. Part 2 will be posted tomorrow.

Bus Leagues Baseball: So who is Clark Brooks?

Clark Brooks: Who is Clark Brooks? Wow. I am a writer. I do a lot of freelance stuff. I do a lot of self-publishing. My main professional gig as it pertains to sports right now is that I am a staff writer for Raw (ed note a Tampa Bay Lightning blog). I have previously been involved with SBNation’s Tampa Bay hub. I used to write for the Rays for a column called “Clark Calls It” for, when it was the Devil Rays. I had a column for America Online called “Deep in the Cheap Seats”, which was a Minor League Baseball column, back in the early days of AOL.

I also have a professional background working in sports for hockey, NCAA college sports, and Minor League Baseball.

BLB: Can you talk about your start in the Tampa sports scene, and with Minor League Baseball in particular?

CB: I moved down to Tampa, Florida in 1986 from Michigan. I like to tell people that we were doing the bad economy thing before it was fashionable everywhere else. So I have been here since 1986, and the first job I got here was a part time staffer at the old Tampa Stadium with a concession company. At that time, right next door was Al Lopez Field, which was the home of the Tampa Tarpons, the Single-A affiliate for the Reds at the time, as well as Spring Training home for the Reds.

I ate dinner at a local Denny’s and there were free tickets to a game right by the cash register. I thought it was the greatest thing ever that there were free tickets to a baseball game, so I snatched them up thinking they would go fast. I got to the game and saw that there were about 200 people there and quickly learned that Minor League Baseball was not a big draw in Tampa, Florida. But I enjoyed the atmosphere and I enjoyed the fact that I could sit wherever I wanted. I had great access – the equivalent of Major League seats that would have cost around 30 dollars at the time I could sit in for free, or on a pay night, for only 2 bucks. And since it was right next door from where I worked, I would go there all the time.

Also, since I worked for the concession company, and since the Tarpons were kinda of Mom-and-Pop operation, which was still the case in Minor League Baseball back then when they had such things, we were frequently in the position of lending food prep equipment and that type of thing to the Tarpons for their use. And I got to know people in the front office and I wound up dating the assistant general manager and I was at the Tarpons game almost every single night.

I was 22 at the time, so basically the first people I met that were my age were ballplayers for the Tarpons. So I started hanging out with those guys. Up until the point that I realized they didn’t have to be at work until 4 o’clock and I had to be at work most times at 8 AM. So hanging out was kinda limited to weekends after I realized I couldn’t hang with their schedule.

So it was just a good match for me, falling in with those people and meeting them, with me loving baseball and the proximity of the team being right there. I just kinda worked my way into the Tarpons family at that point.

And being that it was a mom-and-pop thing, that when people talk about the legendary days of Minor League Baseball where one day you are painting fence lines and the next day you are mowing grass and the next day after that you are cooking hot dogs, that’s pretty much what I was doing. But I dug it.

BLB: I was wondering if you could tell me a little about the significance of the Tarpons to the community. Were they big here?

CB: Well, they were an established team. They were kind of an institution in that they had been there so long. They played in Al Lopez Field, which was the namesake for Tampa’s first Hall of Famer and the guy who put Tampa on the map as far as baseball is concerned. They had been a Reds affiliate since the '50s and Pete Rose played there (Ed Note: The Tarpons were a Phillies team from 1957-1960 and a Reds team from ‘61 to ‘88.). It was the kind of thing where everybody had been to a Tarpons game, but not everybody went to a Tarpons game every night. So it was kinda like an institution that people took for granted.

BLB: So they didn’t draw very well?

CB: No. And being that they were my first real exposure, I thought it was a Tampa problem, but after traveling around I found out that the Florida State League and baseball in general wasn’t a really big draw.

And this was prior to the big boom that hit Minor League Baseball in about 1988 or 1989 when Bull Durham came out and the Carolina Mudcats came around and everyone took off with the quirky mascots and nicknames and Minor League Baseball was big all over the country. That boom never hit Florida, for whatever reason.

BLB: What happened to Al Lopez Field? Is that where Raymond James Stadium is now?

CB: It is. The owners of the Tarpons, the Mick Family, Mitchell and Buddy Mick, two brothers, and they didn’t have a lot of money and the Tampa Sports Authority was not real receptive in keeping Al Lopez Field. They wanted the land the ballpark sat on for other considerations. At the time, a basketball or hockey arena was planned for Tampa – this is before the Lightning were a gleam in anyone’s eye. Everyone saw the location as prime real estate and for lack of a better word they basically forced the Tarpons out of business.

They stopped maintaining the ballpark, they put minimal effort into upkeep, and the stadium deteriorated. Part of that is where the Yankees’ complex is now, and was the Reds Spring Training Complex. They let that deteriorate to the point where the Reds moved out. They let that go downhill to the point where the Reds moved out of Tampa and moved to Plant City. Conditions were so bad, the building couldn’t be salvaged and they weren’t going to put any more upkeep into it. Well, the same building is still there 20 years after the Reds moved out. It is a workout facility near the cloverleaf of practice fields – it’s the same building. They just put work into it once the Yankees got involved.

So things got so bad and conditions got so bad, the field was a joke, and we didn’t have a full tarp. We had tiny, six foot sections of tarp that we had to cover bad spots with. We were fixing puddles with kitty litter. There was a pronounced lip coming off the outfield into the infield were you could physically see a hill. It was awful. I remember our screens for batting practice were chain link.

They tried to hang on as long as they could. Everyone was thinking that Major League Baseball moving to Tampa Bay was eminent. If you were the holders of a franchise, you stood to cash in, as the Major League team would have to buy out your rights for professional baseball in the area. So the Micks held on as long as they could hoping they could last until Major League Baseball expanded or moved to Tampa Bay and they just couldn’t do it. Once Al Lopez was untenable and they couldn’t get an agreement to go to the University of South Florida, they pretty much had to sell the franchise.

BLB: Baseball in Tampa Bay, you are talking about 1988 with the White Sox and 1989 with the Giants, right?

CB: Right, and I think the Twins and the Mariners before that. They kinda flirted with the idea too. So at that point everybody was thinking a move was much more likely than expansion. Everybody thought the next time Tampa Bay was going to be given a team. And that was pretty much the climate for a long time in Tampa Bay.