The Daytona Cubs are the only team in the Florida State League who don't play in a stadium that is also used during spring training. So I was really looking forward to seeing a typical minor league ballpark to finish off the Florida portion of the trip and complete the entire league at the same time. It turned out to be one of the best experiences I have enjoyed on a sports road trip.
Jackie Robinson Ballpark
In 1946, Jackie Robinson was to play in his first spring training with the Montreal Royals after signing a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Royals' parent club. The two teams were scheduled to face off in an exhibition game that would be the first integrated game in the majors in the modern era. (Little known fact: there were two black ballplayers in major league baseball with the Toledo Blue Stockings in 1884.) Cities such as Jacksonville and Deland chose to close their ballparks rather than allow the game to take place. Fortunately, Daytona Beach was a more progressive town and allowed the game to occur on March 17th at their City Island Ballpark. Sixty-six years later and that same ballpark still stands, now renamed Jackie Robinson Ballpark in honour of the man who broke baseball's colour barrier.
Built in 1914, the park has undergone numerous renovations in the intervening century, but still retains the aura of a bygone era. The ticket window outside the Magnolia St entrance (below) is the first sign of this. The other entrance is on Orange St and it is here that you will find the Jackie Robinson statue. Note that the free parking lot behind the stadium leads to the Magnolia St entrance and you should walk around to the other side if you want to get a look at the statue before going in.
The stadium was renamed to Jackie Robinson Ballpark in 1989 and since then, a number of additions have made this more than just a sports venue, but a historical lesson as well. On the wall behind the Cubs' clubhouse are several panels describing Robinson's life and the struggles he faced in trying to break the colour barrier.
As well, there are panels along the Riverwalk that talk about other "Barrier Breakers", such as Willie O'Ree who was the first black player in the NHL. At the Picnic Porch in right field is another display, this time related to the Jim Crow laws that were in force in the 1940s. It is no coincidence that this is set here as the Picnic Porch area was once the Jim Crow section where black fans were forced to sit. Take the time to walk around and read all of these, they are well-written and informative. I should also note that much of this is open to the public between 9 and 5 during the day, so even if the Cubs are not in town, you can stop by for a visit.
After you have refreshed your history knowledge, it is time to refresh yourself by enjoying the plaza next to the Riverwalk. I found the food selections here to be the best in the league and affordably priced. Large (32 oz) beers are just $5.75 and there were plenty of options both at the concession stand and a grill on the third base side, where a freshly-cooked cheeseburger was only $4.25. There are several picnic tables where you can sit and enjoy your pre-game feast next to the river. You will also notice banners of famous players who plied their trade here, including Stan Musial and Kerry Wood. As well, there is a "Road to the Show" wall that lists every Daytona Cub who has made the majors, including the year(s) he spent in Daytona as well as the date of his first MLB game. Most obviously made their debut with Chicago, but a few were traded, such as Eric Hinske, who won Rookie of the Year with Toronto in 2002.
Inside the seating bowl is where you realize that this is really an old-time ballpark. A low-hanging roof covers the entire grandstand, where all seats are $7, except those in the first row which go for $12. There are even obstructed view seats as the poles supporting the roof are near the front of each section. As you might be able to see below, the entire section here is protected by netting.
Despite being covered, the setting sun does strike the grandstand before the game, making it a pleasant place to watch the players warmup.
The bleachers along third base are uncovered, but even there the netting above the dugout obstructs the view. Given that this ballpark is nearly 100 years old though and that home plate is quite close to the seating area, the netting is a necessity to protect fans. You can avoid this by sitting at the top few rows here.
The scoreboard is manually operated by two people throughout the game. It may appear to be old, but was actually added in the most recent renovation. Even the ball/strike/out counters are done manually and sometimes the count is partially blocked by one of the gentleman working out there, at least from the angle I was sitting at.
Overall, this is the best ballpark in the league. Sure the others are newer and bigger, but if you want the true minor league experience in the Florida State League, you only need visit Jackie Robinson Ballpark in Daytona Beach.
Dunedin was in town so I wore my Blue Jays jersey, the only one I saw in the lively crowd of over 3,000. The Jays jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first when Jake Marisnick (3rd, 2009) led off with a homer (just like he did in Dunedin) and Marcus Knecht (3rd, 2010) followed with a 2-run shot. Jesse Hernandez started for Dunedin and retired the first six hitters he faced, but fell apart in the third and fourth inningss, giving up 9 hits and 7 runs before being relieved by Alan Farina (3rd, 2007). Farina was equally inept, yielding a threespot in his inning of work. In other words, it was 10-3 Daytona after five frames.
These young Jays have a powerful team that just won the first-half title so I still had hope. Sure enough, Cubs starter Frank Del Valle (above) tired in the sixth, walking Knecht and giving up a single to Kevin Ahrens (16th overall, 2007) before leaving. Ryan Searle came in and walked Jack Murphy (31st, 2009, now promoted to New Hampshire) to load the bases. DH Oliver Dominguez followed with a monster grand slam to cut the margin to just 3. Searle remained in the game despite being clearly fatigued, as the Daytona bullpen was overtired and had no other options, due to a promotion earlier in the day. This worked in the Jays favour as Jon Talley (13th, 2007) simply crushed one in the 7th to make it 10-8.
Scott Weismann (46th, 2011) worked a scoreless the 8th for the Cubs while Dunedin relievers Englebrook and Dustin Antolin (11th, 2008) had kept Daytona off the board through the same inning, sending us to the top of the ninth with the Cubs still up two.
Weismann remained in and Marisnick led off with a single to bring the tying run to the plate. After a couple of out, Talley was the Jays' last chance. Down to his last strike, he lined a single to left to bring up Knecht. Two quick strikes and again it was do or die time. Knecht connected (see what I did there?) with a hanging curve and sent it deep into the night, a 3-run shot that gave Dunedin the lead and stunned the remaining fans, who had likely thought the game over long ago.
Dunedin closer Danny Barnes (35th, 2010) was brought in for the save and got Rebel Ridling (25th, 2008) looking, except the umpire missed the call, much to the disbelief of the Jays' dugout. Given a second chance, Ridling doubled and was pinch run for by Dustin Harrington (34th, 2010). A sacrifice bunt moved Harrington to third and Ronald Torreyes walked. Chad Noble (37th, 2010) came up and flew to shallow right. Surprisingly, manager Brian Harper sent Harrington and Jonathan Jones (29th, 2010) throw was on the money. Murphy held on as Harrington bowled into him and the game was over! Blue Jays win 11-10. Amazing! There is no way the runner would have been sent in the majors, but given the defense in the minors, it makes sense to force the issue and Jones responded with a great throw.
One of the best minor league games I have seen, mainly because Dunedin was involved. It is gratifying when you are wearing the jersey of the visiting team and they storm back from seven runs down to win, even at this level. The local fans were gracious in defeat as they knew they had seen a great contest. A perfect way to end my three weeks in Florida.
It was Military Appreciation Night which is why the Cubs were wearing those camouflage jerseys you see in the picture above. Before the game some new Marines were sworn in, and then the guest of honour, Sgt. Slaughter appeared. Yes, a pro wrestler was there and he made sure the crowd cheered on the military in attendance. He also did sang "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and signed autographs all night long.
Jackie Robinson wore #9 in that first game before switching to the now universally retired #42, and this fact is noted on a sign in the outfield. Richie Zisk's #22 is also retired on a pole beyond right field.
One somewhat intoxicated fan, noticing my Blue Jays jersey, asked me where "Duneldlin" is. I told him it was a town in the Tampla Blay area.