Spring Training 2008: The Cleveland Indians Say Good-Bye To Winter Haven, Fla.

Indians Are Moving To Goodyear, Arizona Next Spring

Saturday, March 22, 2008
- photo by Tim Evearitt

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- In less than a week, the Cleveland Indians will exit this quiet community of about 28,000 people, with their future Spring Training sights set on the greener pastures of Goodyear, Ariz.

As you pull into the heart of town Chief Wahoo's beaming face greets you from his water-tower perch.

That tower and that logo once served as a beacon leading baseball fans to Chain of Lakes Park, the Spring Training home of the Indians.

But over time, the Chief's once-vivid visage has faded in the Florida sun. No one has bothered to repaint it, because Wahoo's Winter Haven days are numbered.

Depending on your perspective, this is either cause for hoopla or heartache.

The majority of Indians players, coaches and front-office types are elated at the idea of training in a new facility in the travel-friendly confines of the Cactus League, and Winter Haven city officials are happy to recover land they feel is primed for retail and/or housing development.

But fans in Central Florida and Ohio snowbirds who make the roughly 17-hour drive to these parts each spring are distraught over the thought of the Tribe leaving town.

"I love the Cleveland Indians," says Winter Haven resident Sharon Kelley. "I'm going to be crushed."

The team arrived here not by choice but by the cruel hand dealt by Mother Nature.

In 1993, the Indians, who trained in Tucson, Ariz., from 1947-92, had plans to open a new facility in Homestead, Fla., on the southern tip of the state. But Hurricane Andrew, one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history, washed away those hopes.

Suddenly homeless, the Indians turned to Winter Haven, which had just been abandoned by its long-time tenants, the Boston Red Sox.

It was to be a temporary arrangement. The Sox, after all, while beloved in this town, had left it for a reason. The Chain of Lakes facility was woefully out of date, even by the standards of '93. The Major League clubhouse, in particular, was in need of renovation.

The city, though, embraced the Indians. And the community was particularly helpful when the Tribe endured one of the franchise's darkest days.

On March 22, 1993 (the only off day in the Tribe's spring season) pitchers Steve Olin and Tim Crews were killed, and Bobby Ojeda was seriously injured in a boating accident on Little Lake Nellie in nearby Clermont.

A reminder of the tragedy still stands near the Chain of Lakes ticket offices, where two oak trees were planted in memory of Olin and Crews. A plaque marking the sad event rests near the trees. The Indians hope to move that plaque to the Heritage Park section of Progressive Field this year.

It's quirky, for sure, but training in Winter Haven does have its charms.

Players have certainly enjoyed the reasonable proximity to Disney World, where they can take their kids in their free time (and Spring Training offers plenty of it).

Fans, meanwhile, have enjoyed an accessibility that is increasingly rare in today's sporting world.

Hall of Famer Bob Feller plays catch near home plate before every home game, then trots out to the left-field concession area to sign autographs for hours at a time.

For those more interested in more current memorabilia, autographs can easily be snagged by the agility and practice fields that wrap around a 42-year-old stadium with some of the best sightlines in the game.

For years, it was no secret the Indians were looking for a new spring venue. Nor has it been a secret that city officials in Winter Haven would like to use the land occupied by Chain of Lakes for other purposes.

A half-hearted attempt to forge a deal to build a new complex in another part of town was made, but the city couldn't come up with complete funding and the Indians, following the path of others in the Majors, didn't want to put up a dime.

And as the fading paint on the Wahoo water tower illustrates, that end is fast approaching.
Adapted from MLB.com

Chain of Lakes Park in Winter Haven
Chain of Lakes Park in Winter Haven
- photo by Tim Evearitt

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