Tuesday, June 18, 2013

June 13- Tampa Smokers

Well, the time has come. For the worst part of the last 12 years I unfortunately have been a smoker. A smart as I am and with as much knowledge as there is available to show people why smoking is bad, I still kept the habit up. Sadly, it all started because of a girl. When I was 18-years-old I graduated high school from Columbia River High School in Vancouver, Washington and started dating someone who was a year younger than me. Everyone in her family smoked, with the exception of her younger brother and sister who quite possibly picked up the habit once they were old enough. I can still remember the night I started too. We were driving from her house back to mine and she asked if I wanted one. We had been dating for about three months and I had always refused up until that moment. I can’t really give much of a solid reason as to why I say yes, other than with the hopes of getting some action, which is pretty much the only reason why a young kid like myself would do something when a woman asks. But from then, I was hooked.

After we broke up I started buying my own packs. I wasn’t chain smoking or anything, maybe like three-to-four a day. The only person close to me who smoked was my best friend Ronnie Forrest. He and I would always get together in our free time and jam out to Blink-182, our favorite band. On the evening of September 9, 2001 we enjoyed our last cigarette together right before I went home following his going away party as he was set to leave for Navy boot camp on the morning of September 11th; kind of crazy how that one worked out. For the next few months we chatted when we could. He and I had dreams of hanging out together in San Diego, California, going to school at San Diego State once his papers came in. He finished the top of his graduating class, and with that, he had the option to go wherever he wanted. He of course chose San Diego.

Our meeting and co-habitation would never come to fruition. In the months following his training he was set to deploy for Iraq, to serve in the Persian Gulf as the United States prepared for war. In the last hour before he flight was set to leave to London, England I had an opportunity to talk with him on the government’s dime. He first talked my mom for a solid 30 minutes before she passed it off to me. My mom said that he sounded drunk, which ended up being true once I had the chance to hear his voice. We were both 19-years-old, but with him being in the military he was allowed certain adult privileges. Our conversation fell heavily upon how we were doing and what he had been up to, but it ended with the only time I had ever said “I love you” to any of my friends. I had always been one to bottle up my emotions when it came to those closest to me, but I couldn’t really think of anything else to tell him. It wasn’t meant to be gay or anything of that nature, rather that I had always treated him like a brother. The phone went silent for a minute and he came back with an “I love you” of his own, followed by, “No really Ben, I really mean it and I really appreciate hearing it from you.” We said our goodbyes and he boarded his plane. I then walked outside, lit up a cigarette and cried my eyes out. For some odd reason I felt that was the last time I was ever going to hear from him. As it turned out, I was correct. While Ronnie and his fellow troops had a brief layover in London they were allowed to walk about the city until their plane for Iraq left later that evening. Somewhere on the route back (and I still haven’t gotten a clear answer about this), Ronnie was struck by a train and killed instantly. It would be two weeks before the news got to me. I called his parents’ house after someone I knew had heard about his death, I had to make sure things weren’t being blown out of proportion. Sure enough, my worst thoughts came true. From that moment on, smoking became my only escape.

Years have passed and my daily dosage has increased slightly. I got up to about a half-pack-a-day when I went to Europe in the summer of 2010, but I have yet to exceed that. I never feel good after I smoke either, which is one of the more unusual things that I always notice, yet I still continue to do so. When I took my Major League Baseball road trip this last summer after my time in the MLB Fan Cave I was able to make it to three Tampa Bay Rays games while I was in Florida. Tampa is a haven for smoking, cigars mostly, and Tropicana Field is one if the few places I’ve been equipped with a smoking bar. Little did I know that the smoking bar was for cigar smokers only, something I found to be incredibly funny. But with that, anytime I felt the need to light up during the game I made my way to the deck just outside the smoking bar to get a good puff in while raindrops trickled down on my head.

It was during this trip to Florida that I met the love of my life, my girlfriend Angie Kinderman (@sconnieangie), a soon-to-graduate student at Nova Southeastern University in the physician’s assistant program. In the near 10 months that we’ve been together, and with her extensive medical background, Angie has been asking me to quit for the sake of me being around longer to share time with her. Deep down I want this too, but I could never get myself to break the habit until now.

Angie means the world to me and the last thing I want to do is burn out because of a continuous mistake that I’ve made for nearly half of my life thus far. Losing someone I loved is what really aided the process, but gaining someone I love will help end it. I have many more years of baseball to watch and enjoy with my sweetie. I would much rather do it with a healthy set of vital organs.

I picked this cap up a few weeks ago, and I really lucked out too. I had only seen this cap for sale once on the MLB.com shop Web site and all they had left were 7s and 6 7/8s. I had pretty much given up hope until I decided to peruse the Lids clearance section on their Web site. Sure enough, a few hats in and they hat it… on sale… AND IN MY SIZE NO LESS! I threw that, my Indianapolis Indians cap and an A.J. Pierzynski Chicago White Sox Player-T in my cart and checked out. For those of you who don’t know how hard it was to find, all I can say is that they only made it for one season: 2011. That’s right, and somehow there were still a few lying around the Lids warehouse in Indianapolis waiting for me to find it. Tight!

Now, to clear a few things up and why I spent most of this story thus far talking about smoking... This cap is a re-release of the old Tampa Smokers caps from 1951. The original Smokers were a charter franchise of the Florida State League that started play in 1919. The name reflected the importance of the cigar industry to the Tampa area. These Tampa Smokers moved to the Southeastern League in 1929 and officially ceased operations along with the league after the 1930 season. In 1932, the Smokers played in the short-lived West Coast Baseball League, but disbanded again when the league collapsed after a single season. The name was revived professionally for a final time in 1946, when the Tampa Smokers became a charter member of the Florida International League, a Class C league that was notable for fielding a team in Havana, Cuba. In 1952 this incarnation of the Tampa Smokers became one of the first three racially integrated teams in Florida, fielding black player Claro Duany. These Smokers folded along with the Florida International League after the 1954 season. The importance of the cigar industry to Tampa's economy had waned by the 1950s. When minor league baseball returned to the city in 1957, the new team was called the Tampa Tarpons.

On July 2, 2011 the Rays donned the Smokers uniforms as they took the field against the St. Louis Cardinals as part of their throwback days; however, the Rays made one key alteration in the uniform. This is what the original jersey looks like.

This is what they wore.

Do you see it? Despite the team name and the heritage of the team the Rays and MLB elected to remove the cigar logo from the front of the chest for a “slightly more contemporary version” for today’s crowds. In others words, NO SMOKING! This is a move that MLB pulled off last season as well with the Houston Astros when they wore their Colt .45s jerseys without the guns. It’s a move, in my eyes, which makes no sense as the team name itself signifies these removed objects, but more importantly the entire history and culture behind their names and logos no longer have any relevance. Basically, if you’re going to go old school, be sure to keep it as such. We don’t want another Washington Bullets to the Washington Wizards fiasco on our hands.

When it came to the marking up of the cap there was only one name that came to mind; however, his time with the Smokers was brief, so I needed to expand upon the history a little bit. I think y’all will agree.

#AL- Funny that it came out as “AL,” since it is his first name, but I assure you it’s his first and last initials. Al Lopez was the son of immigrants from Asturias, Spain who went to Cuba, then settled the Spanish-Cuban-Italian immigrant community of Ybor City, Tampa, Florida in the late 1880s. He was born in Ybor City. The cigar industry was most important in Tampa at the time, and Lopez's father, Modesto Lopez, worked in a cigar factory. Lopez visited his father's workplace as a child and "hated" the smell of tobacco that permeated the factory building. "I vowed never to work in one," he said later. Modesto died of throat cancer when Al was a young child. On May 16, 2013, his boyhood home is being moved to 19th Street and 9th Avenue in Tampa, where it will become the Tampa Baseball Museum.

After a boyhood spent playing baseball whenever possible, his professional career began in 1924 at the age of 16, when he quit school and signed on as a catcher with the Class-D Tampa Smokers. His starting salary was $150 per month. While with the Smokers, he impressed pitcher Walter Johnson with his abilities during a winter barnstorming exhibition game and was soon moving up in the minor leagues. He hit .293 in 167 games with the Smokers.

Lopez broke into the major leagues in 1928 with the Brooklyn Dodgers and became their starting catcher in 1930. Over a career which ran until 1947, he played for the Dodgers (1928, 1930-1935), Boston Bees (1936-1940), Pittsburgh Pirates (1940-1946) and Cleveland Indians (1947). His best offensive season was 1933, when he hit .301, stole 10 bases, and finished 10th in National League MVP voting. Overall, he compiled modest batting numbers, including 613 runs, 51 home runs, and 652 RBI and a .261 batting average. He was better known for his defense and his ability to handle pitchers, which earned him two trips to the All-Star game and respect around the league. In 1945, he surpassed Gabby Hartnett's major league record for career games as a catcher, and when he retired after the 1947 season, his major league record for games caught stood at 1918. This record was not broken until 1987 by Bob Boone, and the National League record was broken by Gary Carter in 1990.

As the first Tampa native and one of the first Hispanic-Americans to play in the major leagues, Lopez was already well-respected and celebrated in his hometown, especially among the city's Latin community. When he was named manager of the Indians in 1951, Tampa honored him with a parade. Under Lopez, the Indians won over 90 games from 1951 to 1953 but came in second place to the New York Yankees each season. In 1954, the team won a then American League record 111 games to capture the AL pennant but were upset by the New York Giants in the 1954 World Series. In 1955 and 1956, Lopez's squads again finished second to the Yankees. Lopez was "incensed" that Cleveland fans repeatedly booed Indian's third-baseman Al Rosen during the stretch run of 1956 season and felt that team management did not properly support his injured player. Consequently, he resigned at the end of the season, and agreed to manage the White Sox a month later.

Lopez enjoyed similar success in Chicago, as his new team finished in 2nd place to the Yankees in 1957 and 1958. His "Go Go White Sox" team finally broke through and won the American League pennant in 1959. He stayed with the team until 1965, finishing in second place five times and never posting fewer than 82 victories.

When the city of Tampa built a new minor league and spring training ballpark for the White Sox in 1954, it was named Al Lopez Field in his honor. Later in life, Lopez would recall a spring training incident in which an umpire with whom he was arguing threatened to throw him out of a game there. "You can't throw me out of this ballpark," protested Lopez, "This is my ballpark - Al Lopez Field!" The umpire ejected him anyway, causing Lopez to exclaim, "He threw me out of my own ballpark!"

Lopez retired to the White Sox front office after the 1965 season, but returned to manage parts of the 1968 and 1969 seasons after manager Eddie Stanky was fired. When Lopez retired for good due to health concerns in May 1969, his 1,410 wins ranked 11th all-time, and he never had a losing record in 15 seasons as a big league manager. His 1954 Indians and 1959 White Sox were the only non-Yankee clubs to win the AL pennant between 1949 and 1964 inclusive. His 840 wins with the White Sox still rank second in franchise history, behind Jimmy Dykes (899).

Lopez was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977 by the Veterans Committee along with Joe Sewell and Amos Rusie. Ernie Banks was the only player that year to be elected in by the Baseball Writers Association of America. Lopez returned to Tampa upon retirement. As the first major league player and manager from the community, he was often mentioned as an inspiration by other baseball figures from the area and was considered one of Tampa's "legends" and most honored citizens.

When aging Al Lopez Field was razed in 1989, Horizon Park, a city park a few blocks north of the old ballpark site, was renamed Al Lopez Park and a statue of him was dedicated there. As a renowned alumnus, the athletic center at Jesuit High School, which is located across the street from Al Lopez Park, was also dedicated to him. And when the Tampa Bay area finally gained its own major league franchise in 1998 with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Lopez was asked to throw the ceremonial first pitch before their inaugural game.

Lopez died in Tampa at the age of 97 just four days after the White Sox won the 2005 World Series, their first championship in 88 years and their first pennant-winning season since Lopez led them to the World Series in 1959. He had been hospitalized for a heart attack, suffered two days earlier at his son's home. At the time of his death, Lopez was the last living person who had played major league baseball during the 1920s and is the longest-lived member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

#11- Remember that throwback game I mentioned that was played on July 2? Well, if there was a Player of the Game award for that particular game it probably would have gone to then-first baseman Casey Kotchman. The Rays beat the Cardinals that day by the score of 5-1, mostly thank in part to Kotchman’s 2-4 day at the plate including three RBI. The same could be said for outfielder Justin Ruggiano who also went 2-4 with a home run and two RBI. And the came could also be said of Johnny Damon who went 4-4 on the day with all singles and no RBI.

The fact of the matter is that in the case of Damon, singles are only good for strip clubs if there isn’t a return on the scoring. As for Kotchman and Ruggiano… in the bottom of sixth inning the Rays were down 1-0. The bases were loaded for Kotchman as Kyle McKlellan gave him a sweet pitch to hit which he smacked for a base-clearing double. Ruggiano batted next and tagged his fourth home run of the season. Since the score ended 5-1, it’s fair to say that Kotchman’s offensive production is what really turned the tide in the game. And for that, he earned a spot on the Smokers cap. Boom!

1 comment:

  1. I wish I had more thumbs so I could give you more props on your writing ...so many players, so many ball clubs, so many events, always on point....once again 2+thumbs up....o yea email me your hat size I've come across a few caps I think would spark your interest