The Florida State League is baseball's answer to the old question: if a tree falls in a forest and nobody is around, does it make a sound?
Florida is not only the launching pad for America's space program, but also the careers of some of baseball's best young talent, yet the 12-team FSL averages just 1,218 fans per game. By comparison, the Northwest League, a Class A Short-Season circuit with eight teams pulls in nearly 3,000 spectators for each contest.
Then again, you must consider just some of the obstacles the FSL faces each and every year. Just ask league president Chuck Murphy.
"Attendance has always been a big difficulty with this league," said Murphy, an FSL veteran who started as the Daytona Cubs general manager in 1983. "There are just so many things to do in Florida, like Disney and all the beaches. A lot of people come in for Spring Training, but a bunch leave once the Major Leaguers break camp. Then you gotta worry about the hurricanes."
Ah, yes, the hurricanes. The FSL was on its way to a record-setting year in attendance in 2004 before the state was ravaged by four hurricanes, the worst coming when Charley, a Category 4 storm, struck in mid-August, while Hurricane Ivan forced the cancellation of the FSL Championship Series, with Tampa and Daytona being named co-champs. Though the storms did not reduce the stadiums to rubble, they did serve as a reminder as to where the league came from.
The league got its start as a D-League in 1919 with teams in Bartow, Bradenton, Lakeland, Orlando, Sanford and Tampa. The league fluctuated between four and eight teams for the next eight years until Florida was hit by three hurricanes that were reportedly on par with the destructive force seen in Katrina and Rita of this past season. The league folded after the 1927 season when faced with the combination of both a depressed South Florida economy and the lingering effects of the hurricanes.
The FSL reopened for good in 1936 and has been producing some of the Major League's best talent ever since. A 20-year-old left-hander from western Pennsylvania led the league with an 18-5 record for the then-Daytona Beach Islanders in 1940, but a fall during the latter part of the season ended his pitching career. That man, Stan Musial, was also a pretty decent hitter that season, batting .311 with 70 RBIs, and he was on his way to becoming one of the most complete hitters in baseball history.
Among some of the FSL's most famous alums are Hall of Famers Early Wynn, Johnny Bench, Jim Palmer, Rod Carew, Rollie Fingers and manager Al Lopez. Minor League Baseball's first name in managing also made a name for himself while down in the FSL. Stan Wasiak, owner of a record 2,570 Minor League wins in 37 seasons, was a skipper for Daytona Beach from 1970-72 and Vero Beach from 1980 until his retirement after the 1986 campaign.
Such longevity is rare down in the Minors, and is especially the case for cities hosting FSL franchises. Over the last 70 years, 31 different communities have had an FSL team at some point, with Daytona Beach serving as the league's elder statesman after 58 years of service.
Currently, the FSL -- which was promoted to Class A status in 1963 -- is a 12-team league with two divisions that follows a split-season format. The East consists of the Brevard County Manatees, Daytona Cubs, Jupiter Hammerheads, Palm Beach Cardinals, St. Lucie Mets and Vero Beach Dodgers while the West holds the Clearwater Threshers, Dunedin Blue Jays, Fort Myers Miracle, Lakeland Tigers, Sarasota Reds and Tampa Yankees. The now-defunct St. Petersburg franchise had the most league championships, winning eight, while Daytona has the most of any active franchise, capturing seven pennants.
Over the years, the league has established a reputation as being one of the more pitcher-friendly circuits in the Minors, similar to what the California League is for hitters. Low-scoring games are commonplace throughout the league and it was not unusual for multiple no-hitters to occur each season. Sometimes, the numerous no-no's were authored by the same pitcher.
Sid Fernandez, the husky Hawaiian southpaw who was a key starter for the Mets during the 1980s, had probably one of the best half-seasons in FSL history. "El Sid" tossed a pair of no-hitters in 1982 for Vero Beach, one on April 24 against Winter Haven and another on June 8 against Ft. Lauderdale. Fernandez pitched in 12 games for the Dodgers before getting called up to Triple-A Albuquerque and
accumulated an 8-1 record with 137 strikeouts in 84 2/3 innings, four shutouts and a 1.91 ERA.
Fourteen years later, another fireballer took the league by storm. Kerry Wood, a 19-year-old first-round pick by the Cubs, took part in two no-hitters in less than a month while pitching for Daytona, each happening within a month of each other. The hard-throwing Texan shut down Tampa for eight innings on July 28 and gave Vero Beach nothing for seven frames on August 24.
Today, the FSL is still battling the Florida tourism industry like those batters facing Fernandez and Wood, fouling off each tough pitch in hopes that the next one comes wrapped with a bow down the middle of the plate. Murphy calls the general managers in the league "some of baseball's hardest working GM's" because of the extra time spent dealing with Spring Training and their constant struggle of trying to fill seats.
With some of the talent that has come through in recent years, any baseball fan would be foolish to ignore the chance to see so many young players bound for stardom. Francisco Liriano, the Twins' future co-ace, emerged on the baseball scene with Fort Myers in 2004 while the Tigers saw two top level prospects, right-handed pitcher Justin Verlander and outfielder Brent Clevlen, help give the organization legitimate hope for the future with their outstanding performances last year. Current big league stars such as Derek Jeter, David Ortiz, Eric Gagne and Roy Halladay each spent parts of their early careers down in the tropical environs of the FSL, validating the league's slogan of "Where Tomorrow's Major League Stars Play Today."