A Harvard computer science professor I met in front of the third base dugout at City of Palms Park captured in a few excited moments the magic of the Roy Hobbs World Series.
His name is Henry Leitner and he is also an associate dean at what may be America’s most prestigious university. He plays baseball for a team called the Silver Foxes.
He didn’t know anything about the history of City of Palms Park until I told him how it was once the spring training home of the Boston Red Sox.
“The Red Sox came here?” Leitner said in astonishment. “Wow!”
Leitner didn’t strike me in that moment as a distinguished professor at one of the world’s most renown universities. He was 12 again. That’s probably the case with all of the 4,500 or so players who trooped into Lee County ballparks over the past five weeks.
They’re 12 again, playing the game they love. They don real uniforms and slip on spikes and play baseball at big-league spring training facilities such as City of Palms Park and JetBlue Park and the CenturyLink Sports Complex and venerable Terry Park.
I know the spikes are real because I can hear them click and clatter when players clomp across concrete.
The players are all 12 again. That includes a civil engineer from the Dominican Republic and a chef from Australia and a pharmacist from Albany, N.Y.
On the the day I chatted with Leitner, I told him about the famous Red Sox players who had played in City of Palms Park.
As Leitner learned more he glanced up into the stands and excitedly told his wife, Catalina, some news.
“Nomar Garciaparra played here!” Leitner said,
So did Henry Leitner.
And over the years many thousands of other.
I used to play in the Roy Hobbs World Series and played in City of Palms Park. At the time I played a lot of shortstop, the same position as Nomar Garciaparra. I couldn’t play as well as Garciaparra. I’m sure Henry Leitner can’t either. Not many can.
Roy Hobbs president Tom Giffen asks me every fall to be his staff writer, to pen features for the Inside Pitch, the newsletter of Roy Hobbs Baseball.
That means over the past five weeks I visited ballparks and talked baseball to men and women from all over.
From Nova Scotia and New Jersey, from Fort Myers and upstate New York and Tennessee and points south, west, east and north.
They’re all 12 again.
In the event’s first week back in October when the weather was still steamy I met a 30-year-old civil engineer from the Dominican Republic named Radhames Perez. He was likely the youngest player and was in the youngest age division of the Roy Hobbs World Series.
Ever since he was 20 Perez had looked forward to playing in the Roy Hobbs World Series,
“This is my dream right here,” Perez told me.
We were sitting in the bleachers by a practice field at JetBlue Park before a game.
“The feeling you get is the closest you can ever get to my dreams of playing in the big leagues,” Perez said.
Wherever I went and whoever I talked to shared their love of the game.
I chatted with South Dakota Rushmores manager Dave Mydland, who was signed out of South Dakota State by the Twins in 1974. His signing bonus?
“I signed for a plane ticket and a new glove,” Myland told me.
The glove was a Rawlings 2000. The plane ticket took him from South Dakota to Elizabethon, Tenn. That’s where Mydland’s taste of pro ball consisted of 31 games and 99 plate appearance in the rookie level Appalachian League. He hit .229 and wasn’t invited back for a second season.
“It was a hoot,” Mydland said of his pro experience.
Now, 45 years later he is still playing baseball but it is in the Roy Hobbs World Series. Why?
“It’s just a hoot,” he said of playing in the Roy Hobbs World Series.
In five weeks of popping in and out of ballparks and talking baseball the players and managers and spouses are invariably in good spirits.
I did an Inside Pitch story on a team called the Ca-Am Padres, which consisted of Canadian and American players. I asked Can-Am assistant manager B. J. Johnson if he’s Canadian or American.
“Chicagoan,” Johnson said with a laugh.
Alas, real life and real death did intrude on the 2019 Roy Hobbs World Series. One evening shortly after I filed one of my Inside Pitch stories my cell hope rang with a very familiar number – that of Roy Hobbs president Tom Giffen.
I asked how he was doing.
“Shitty,” he said.
He then told me a player had died on a field. The Houston Colts’ Anthony Martin, 63, collapsed and died Nov. 10 at JetBlue Field No. 5. I had just spent hours at that very field earlier in the day talking to players on a Nova Scotia team.
I talked to Colts manager Dan Coleman, who told me about Mr. Martin. He had just doubled when he fell over at second base. He died on the spot from what was a massive heart attack.
But most of the time writing for the Inside Pitch is about celebrating the game.
Lonnie Samples now of the DuPage Indians visited Southwest Florida in 1993 to go fishing. His brother and a friend were playing at City of Palms Park. They asked him to play and he’s been coming back ever since.
Samples told me about how excited his brother, Tommy, was about playing at City of Palms, which was then the Red Sox spring training home.
“He’s running around on the smooth outfield and he got down and kissed the grass,” Samples said,. “One of the fields guys was out there working and he said, ‘Somebody just peed there a few minutes ago.’ Tommy goes, ‘I don’t care. It’s beautiful.’”
I met four Australians who found the Roy Hobbs World Series on the Internet and travelled from their distant shore to play on big-league quality diamonds for a team called the Kenmore Orioles.
“There’s nothing like this in Australia,” Aussie Clinton Ball said of the big-league spring training facilities.
The 2019 Roy Hobbs World Series included a six-team women’s division. Some of the players who participated are so young they could more accurately be called girls instead of women.
That included 16-year-old Patsy Lane of the East coast Marlins, who traveled from California with her mother, Martha, to participate.
“It’s the only sport that ever interested her,” Martha told me.
A passion for the game and its history run through the players, no matter their age or gender.
At Terry Park, the Windy City Warriors one day wore jerseys with the names of Hall of Famers who played in the park, which was used off and on for spring training from 1925 to 1987. The Warriors suited up as Babe Ruth, Roberto Clemente, Stan Musial, Mickey Mantle, Jimmie Foxx, Jackie Robinson and more.
“It’s our day to live in the past,” Warriors manager Jack Kotas told me.
It was five weeks of living in the past and the present for all 269 teams. And I was honored to be a small part of it, part of the 2019 Roy Hobbs World Series.