What do plantations, horse racing, and baseball all have in common? If that question either confuses you or seems like a trick, you're obviously neither a Minnesota Twins fan nor someone who's been to Fort Myers, Florida. Those people know the answer is quite simple: Lee County Sports Complex' centerpiece, William Hammond Stadium.
Built from the ground up for the sole purpose of coaxing the Minnesota Twins' spring training and minor league operations from Tinker Field in Orlando, their home-away-from-home since 1936 during the organization's days in Washington as the original Senators, the Lee County Sports Complex signified a "coming of age" of sorts for the sleepy retirement haven of Fort Myers. Despite being the home of spring training - at Terry Park Ballfield - on-and-off since 1925, Fort Myers never fully embraced the rite of spring until the Twins came to town in 1992, and brought the Boston Red Sox with them to the new City of Palms Park from Winter Haven the year following.
Brought with them, as well, was the Florida State League Miracle from Miami. Originally started in Fort Myers at Terry Park Ballfield in 1926 as the Palms, they moved to Miami the year after and played until 1928, when the club went on a 34-year hiatus, four name changes, (Hustlers, Marlins, Orioles, back to Marlins, and finally Miracle in 1989) and three different Major League affiliations. Stability was finally promised to the franchise, and their fourth affiliation and sixth name have proven to be the longest for both in the team's history.
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Do you love hot dogs? I hope you do, because they have some of the craziest creations involving Frankfurt's favorite export I've ever seen. The variations include:
- Carolina Dog, which is topped with pulled pork and smothered with baked beans and cole slaw;
- Mac Dog, which is covered with mac & cheese and jalapeńos;
- Brat Dog, which is a half of both a split jumbo hot dog and split brat on a sub roll with pepper jack and cole slaw; and
- The eponymous Miracle Dog, which has peppers, onions, and bacon drowning in nacho cheese.
For those less-brave, you can still get an old-fashioned chili dog.
If hot dogs aren't your thing, you can still do well with burgers, as they grill them in two different kiosks right in front of you. Their specialty burger is the Richard Simmons Burger; no, this is not a tribute to the health guru, but more of a reminder of whom you should seek out after you eat it: a patty topped with a brat, grilled chicken, cheese, and bacon. How it all fits on the bun is still a sight to behold. For the faint of heart, there's also the Grand Slam Burger, which is basically a bacon double cheeseburger, and the Pizza Burger, which is topped with pizza sauce, mozzarella cheese, and pepperoni.
If you're getting indigestion just from reading this review, they actually offer fish tacos, sweet potato fries, grilled chicken sandwiches, and cold subs to help balance the mega greasy and fried. Everything is reasonably-priced and I definitely was full for what I bought.
The lone point off was involved in me buying the chicken tender basket - a staple of parks everywhere - which involved four meager pieces of chicken, poorly cooked fries, and no barbeque sauce. They seem to do the outrageous and awe-inspiring specials great, but the basics of any park in America aren't always as perfectly executed.
Wondering why I haven't answered the question posed at the beginning yet? Well, they're similar because of the centerpiece stadium's architecture. With a professed eye toward the storied Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, the city of Fort Myers created a stadium that, when walking down the main walkway from the parking lot, exudes all the elegance of a large plantation house. From the fountain in front of the main staircase to the elevator tower leading to the suites and press box, the entire façade looks like something requiring a big floppy hat and a mint julep in-hand to be allowed entry.
The scoreboard is nothing fancy, though easy to read, and actually has a small video board that's as wide as the rest of the scoreboard. The sound is clear and loud, but not enough to make you jump out of your skin.
While not much in walking distance except a hospital, high school, residential neighborhood and a single strip mall, a less than five minute drive will take you to plenty of restaurant and bar choices, a 10-15 minute drive takes you into the downtowns of both Fort Myers and Cape Coral, and you're 30 minutes or less from the Gulf beaches. Nothing special, but nothing scary, the area surrounding the park is just kind of there, and I think that adds a little more to the plantation feel.
Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get the best sense of this category, simply because a storm came through and rained-out the second game of a doubleheader, one that was created by a rainout the night before. However, even with the shifted time of the first game (which finished before the skies opened up with the first of many of Florida's notorious summer afternoon thunderstorms this season), thousands had already shown up, and still more were coming through the gates, even as I saw the black cloud make its approach and was sprinting to the nearest watering hole.
To still buy a ticket and enter the gates with the skies as black as they were showed some serious dedication - or lunacy, both of which are worthy of an extra point.
Being located about ten miles south of downtown Fort Myers, eight miles east of Cape Coral, and four miles from Interstate 75, getting to and finding the complex is easy. Once there, it follows the tradition of Bright House Field and Charlotte Sports Park by charging for parking; this time, it's $3 for the privilege of moving your car into a grass field. Each row, however, is named for Twins greats, like Puckett, Blyleven, Carew, and Killebrew. The Twins don't let you forget that this FSL team, and this side of the city, is theirs and not belonging to the cross-town spring rival Red Sox.
The bathrooms have nice wall murals depicting different, random scenes you'll just have to see to appreciate. The concourse, while covered by the above grandstand, is kind of cramped when you get a good-sized crowd.
Some people have a soft spot for their hometown teams, and this shows here. Being a retirement hub, plenty of Fort Myers transplants choose the area based on their allegiances to the Twins and Red Sox, and while there is no Red Sox FSL affiliate, the Miracle can fill that hole in their sports soul nicely. With tickets priced at either $6.50 or $8.50 (with $1 premium for fireworks nights), those who can't make the drive to St. Petersburg or Miami to see American or National League ball, respectively, will go away satisfied, even if the Miracle lost.
Along the 1st base line behind the berm seating, there is an outdoor bar complete with hightop tables along the rail. They serve several different foods than the other concessions, and have a full-service liquor selection.
Also, seek out the Beer Garden, which has nine different brews on-draught, including Woodchuck pear cider, Stella Artois, Shock Top (both regular and raspberry), and team co-owner Jimmy Buffett's personal brew, Land Shark.
Something unique is the Fort Myers chapter of the Professional Baseball Scouts Hall of Fame, depicting scouts that have made great contributions to their teams throughout the years. They share the distinction of housing this collection with five other teams: Charleston RiverDogs, Hudson Valley Renegades, St. Paul Saints, Brockton Rox, and Sioux Falls Pheasants. Each of those teams houses plaques dedicated to different, but no less important, people to the game.
Fort Myers, while not the traditional baseball mecca like Boston, Chicago, and St. Louis, or even St. Petersburg, Bradenton, and Tucson, has built the reputation by bringing some of the best teams to then state-of-the-art facilities. Boston has since moved into a replacement to City of Palms Park, JetBlue Park, and Minnesota's lease for Hammond Stadium expired at the end of 2011, but will be renewed once $42.5 million in renovations are completed, projected for 2015. Though in a state of flux, the baseball future of Fort Myers looks brighter than ever before.
I sincerely hope they continue to use this beautifully-designed park, as it epitomizes Fort Myers perfectly: elegant, classically-designed, and lively. With some minor tweaks here and there, I believe this could move into a top-five park in both the Florida State League and MLB's spring training. I'm looking forward to checking this out in spring, when I won't need an umbrella.
Hammond Stadium, the home of the Fort Myers Miracle, showed why it was miraculous. Even driving through the entrance was entertaining, as the stadium showed its great curb-side appeal with a fountain and two lines of giant palm trees. With this welcoming kind of feel, the mood was light as spectators were ready for a great evening of competitive baseball.
Haven't been to a Miracle game since the mid 1990s but have been to several spring training games the last few years. This is a very nice ballpark with great food & beverages and excellent fans. Easy access from I-75. Only complaint is there isn't much shade so it can get hot for day games.
The ballpark is located in the Lee County Sports Complex, a collection of ball diamonds that lies about 2 miles west of I-75, just south of Daniels Parkway. The outer facade was created to be similar to Churchill Downs. It is a unique look among the ballparks in this league.
Unlike most FSL teams, the Miracle is not owned by the parent club, so they have to find other methods of generating revenue. Thus parking is not free, rather it is $3, with more than enough for the average minor league crowd. Note that each row of parking honours a Twins' great, such as Kirby Puckett and Bert Blyleven.
Tickets are $8.50 for the box seats that lie below the inner concourse, while the general admission benches are $6.50. There is also a drink rail down the right field line that costs $8.50 and seemed quite popular, with a berm just below that was a good place for families to relax.
As you enter the stadium, you will notice a wall dedicated to a few scouts who have made their mark, not just with the Twins but across the game as a whole. Another unique touch that goes a long way to making Hammond quite different than the rest of the ballparks in the league.
Concessions were more varied than usual, with the signature item being a Carolina Dog, a hot dog lathered in pulled pork, baked beans, and coleslaw.
Above the concourse you can see a number of banners that show current Twins in their Miracle uniforms. Always cool to see these stars before they became famous.
The Twins are also honoured on the press box, with the retired numbers (below) and pennants pasted there.
As is the case in the FSL, there are few distractions, which is how I prefer it. Hammond Stadium is really an old-style park that relies on the hard work of the management to attract fans.
8951 Daniels Pkwy
Fort Myers, FL 33912
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