Tribe to say goodbye to Winter Haven
Indians to bid farewell to facility after 16 years of memories
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 The Chain of Lakes facility was woefully out of date, even by the standards of '93.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.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.