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Tribe to say goodbye to Winter Haven

Tribe to say goodbye to Winter Haven

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WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- As you pull into the heart of town -- an hour east of the bright blue waters of Tampa and west of the tourist traps of Orlando -- 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.

In less than a week, the Indians will divorce themselves from this quiet community of about 28,000 people, with their future Spring Training sights set on the greener -- or shall we say sandier? -- pastures of Goodyear, Ariz.

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."

A bizarre relationship

The Tribe's marriage to Winter Haven has been an unlikely -- and, at times, unhappy -- one. 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.

"That was all kind of a blur," says Tribe radio voice Tom Hamilton, "because you thought we'd never leave Tucson. And to this day, I've never seen Homestead, and I don't know how many people have."

Suddenly homeless, the Indians turned to the 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 The Chain of Lakes facility was woefully out of date, even by the standards of '93.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.

Tragedy strikes

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.

Six young children lost their father, two wives lost their husband and one rattled ballclub tried to make sense of it all.

"That was the absolute worst," Hamilton says. "It's a nightmare that, to this day, is still surreal to think about."

For several days after the accident, no games were played. And for several years, the Indians didn't have any off days built into their spring schedules.

"I just remember how strong [manager] Mike Hargrove and [general manager] John Hart were," says Paul Hoynes, the longtime Indians beat writer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "They really helped get the team get through that."

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.

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Lighter moments

Thankfully, the majority of the Indians' stay in Winter Haven has been more silly than sorrowful.

Simply put, things happen here that don't seem to happen anywhere else. Last spring, for example, a homeless man robbed a nearby bank and was chased by police through the complex, just as a game was letting out. Fans driving out of the facility had their trunks scoped out in a desperate search for the bad guy.

No synopsis of life at Chain of Lakes is complete without mention of the creatures who take root at Lake Lulu, which sits adjacent to the facility.

One year, grounds crew member Gene Mathews placed a baby gator in the locker of Tribe outfielder Wayne Kirby, who scurried out of the clubhouse in a panic. Another time, Cleveland sports radio personality Kenny Roda was walking down the right-field line at the stadium when he was dive-bombed by a gang of swallows on the hunt for bugs on the ground.

But the most famous incident occurred just last spring, when a 3-foot black snake slithered its way into the press box during a game against the Mets. Footage of reporters fleeing from the snake as Mathews grabbed it, swung it over his head and took it back to the wild became a "SportsCenter" highlight on ESPN.

"I couldn't believe that," Hoynes says. "It crawled right across my laptop! I figured it could at least do my notes or something! But that's Winter Haven, you know? That's Winter Haven in a capsule. You never knew what was going to happen. You were wrestling with Mother Nature all the time."

The bright side

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.

And while the Tribe's tenure here might not have the history of Vero Beach's Dodgertown, which is also closing up shop this spring, there have been some fine sights for fans to see.

"There were so many great players that came through here with those teams in the '90s," Hamilton says. "And now, to see the ballclub back to that level again, it's been a pretty special period of time."

The downside

The condition of the facility, however, is not so special.

While the clubhouse did get updated in 1994, when the Indians signed a long-term commitment to stay here, the complex is well below the standards of a Major League team preparing for a season. Chain of Lakes has fewer indoor batting cages than many suburban Cleveland recreation centers, and the stadium, in recent years, has been prone to scoreboard malfunctions and water-pipe bursts.

"Every time I walk in here," Tribe general manager Mark Shapiro says, "I feel like I'm letting my players down."

For years, it was no secret the Indians were looking for new spring digs. 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.

The Tribe did try to stay in Florida, but a spate of hurricanes in recent years put a major cramp on state funding. So when Goodyear came calling with plans for a sparkling new facility in a growing area 20 minutes west of Phoenix, it was a "Godfather" deal the Indians couldn't pass up.

The long goodbye

As the Indians get ready to break camp in Florida for the last time next Thursday, the fans in Winter Haven are left frustrated, both with the team and the town.

"I don't know what's wrong with this town," says Rob Hardman, who works for the local post office. "We're all talking about this. I know a lot of people that own businesses around here who are going to be hurting when the Indians leave."

Kelley and Hardman both live in the Park Lake condominium complex that borders Chain of Lakes. They are among the many residents who stand in their own backyard during batting practice or ballgames, hoping to snag a home run ball. And living next door to a player renting out a pad for the six weeks of camp is not uncommon.

"The last three years running, I have got signatures from the entire team on a ball," Kelley says proudly. "None of us want to see this leave. It's wonderful."

At the stadium, the Indians' presence has given retirees a part-time gig worth bragging about.

Every spring, Elaine Wiggins and her husband, Leonard, guard the area near the entrance to the Tribe's clubhouse and have made many friends along the way.

"To me, it's like my family," Elaine says. "Every spring, it's like all my boys are coming home. All these wonderful people touch your life, and now I might never see them again. When March 27 rolls around, I'm going to have a hard time."

And as the fading paint on the Wahoo water tower illustrates, that time is fast approaching.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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