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Then and now: Florida State League

Single-A circuit continues to carve its place in baseball history
April 6, 2022

Following Major League Baseball's announcement that historical league names are returning to the Minors in 2022, provides a refresher on each of the 11 circuits from Triple-A, Double-A, High-A and Single-A -- including past champions, famous alumni and more.

Following Major League Baseball's announcement that historical league names are returning to the Minors in 2022, provides a refresher on each of the 11 circuits from Triple-A, Double-A, High-A and Single-A -- including past champions, famous alumni and more.

Find your midseason form in the Single-A Florida State League, where ballparks pull double duty, Jackie defied Jim Crow and a female manager will soon make history.

Florida State League

Established: 1919, known in 2021 as the Low-A Southeast

East Division

Daytona Tortugas: Cincinnati Reds, Jackie Robinson Ballpark – Daytona Beach, FL (Ballpark Guide)
Jupiter Hammerheads: Miami Marlins, Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium – Jupiter, FL
St. Lucie Mets: New York Mets, Clover Park – Port St. Luice, FL
Palm Beach Cardinals: St. Louis Cardinals, Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium – Jupiter, FL

West Division

Bradenton Marauders: Pittsburgh Pirates, LECOM Park – Bradenton, FL
Clearwater Threshers: Philadelphia Phillies, BayCare Park – Clearwater, FL
Dunedin Blue Jays: Toronto Blue Jays, TD Ballpark – Dunedin, FL
Fort Myers Mighty Mussels: Minnesota Twins, Hammond Stadium – Fort Myers, FL
Lakeland Flying Tigers: Detroit Tigers, Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium – Lakeland, FL
Tampa Tarpons: New York Yankees, Steinbrenner Field – Tampa, FL

2021 Champion: Bradenton
Most championships, all-time: St. Petersburg Saints/Cardinals/Devil Rays (seven)
Most championships, current teams: St. Lucie, Tampa (five)

Did you know? The Tampa Tarpons name first existed from 1957-1988, mostly as a Reds affiliate. A number of key members of the Big Red Machine played for the Tarpons, who also rostered a young infielder named Randy Boffo in 1974. Boffo might be better known by his eventual stage name: “Macho Man Randy Savage.” … Blue Jays legend Dave Steib first appeared for Dunedin in 1978 and returned to the club in 1998 at the start of a comeback attempt at age 40, five years after he first retired from the Majors. … Derek Dye was an intern for the Daytona Cubs in 2012 when he was ejected from a game for his choice of stadium music following a questionable call. The tune that played him out? “Three blind mice.”

Notable alumni: Johnny Bench, Rod Carew, Gary Carter, Rollie Fingers, Roy Halladay, Catfish Hunter, Fergie Jenkins, Derek Jeter, Randy Johnson, Eddie Murray, Stan Musial, Jim Palmer, Cal Ripken Jr., Mariano Rivera, Iván Rodríguez, Nolan Ryan, John Smoltz, Frank Thomas and Early Wynn.

Established in 1919, the circuit briefly disbanded in 1928 before returning for good in 1936. Except for a four-year absence from 1942-45 during World War II, the circuit has continued interrupted since then. The continuous presence of Major League Spring Training in the Sunshine State has only strengthened the bond between Florida and baseball.

Baseball fans look at April 15, 1947 as not only a red-letter day in Major League Baseball, but in the history of the United States. Yet without a Spring Training game at City Island Ballpark in Daytona Beach little more than a year earlier, Jackie Robinson's legacy might never have taken root. The city acted in defiance of the hateful Jim Crow laws that defined the times to allow Robinson to suit up for the Triple-A Montreal Royals against the parent Brooklyn Dodgers and become the first African-American to appear in affiliated baseball since the 19th century. The stadium, home to the Tortugas and the oldest in the Minors, was rededicated to its current name, Jackie Robinson Ballpark, in 1990.

There are some interesting ballpark quirks in the Florida State League. Daytona is the only team on the circuit that does not operate out of its parent club’s Spring Training facility. The Reds actually keep their facility in Goodyear, Arizona, and play in the Cactus League. Also, Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium is the only park in the Minors to house two teams.

For more than 50 years, Minor League Baseball was the only show in town for Floridians once March ended. Major League expansion produced the Marlins in 1993 and the Rays in 1998, but the popularity of the FSL never waned.

What’s new: Tampa manager Rachel Balkovec will be the first female manager in Minor League history. Balkovec spent last year as a hitting coach in the Rookie-level Florida Complex League and has worked in the Yankees organization since 2019. … The league changed classification from Class A Advanced to Low-A in 2021. Two teams -- the Florida Fire Frogs and Charlotte Stone Crabs -- were disbanded.

What’s familiar: The circuit was the first in affiliated ball to test out the ABS (automated ball-strike system) in 2021. ABS is returning to the FSL with a new wrinkle – a “challenge” system in select games, in which umpires call balls and strikes, and the pitcher, catcher and batter have an ability to appeal the umpire’s call to the ABS system. … Although team identities have changed, only two new franchises -- Palm Beach and Bradenton -- were formed since 2000. The Lakeland (Flying) Tigers sport the distinction of being the longest-running affiliation on the circuit, having formed in 1967.

For the record: Lakeland’s affiliation with the Tigers dates back to 1967. It’s tied with Reading and the Phillies as the longest such relationship in the Minors. … Before a group of Hall of Famers got together in Pawtucket to play a 33-inning game, the longest game in Minor League history happened in the Florida State League. On June 14, 1966, the Miami Marlins beat the St. Petersburg Cardinals, 4-3, in a 29-inning marathon. … Two cities which no longer have franchises -- Orlando and Leesberg -- combined for 21 different teams throughout the history of the league.

Ben’s Biz Memory – Lawn bowling on Daytona’s “Big Shellbowski” Night

"Another one of those, 'only in Minor League Baseball,' moments. Daytona, big-picture, is by far my favorite ballpark in Florida. One of my favorites in the country. Oldest ballpark in all of Minor League Baseball. I happened to be there for 'Big Shellbowski Night,' which, of course, is, 'The Big Lebowski,' and 'Shell' because they're the Tortugas and that means, 'turtle,' in Spanish. The ballpark is adjacent to a public tennis court. And they used the tennis court for a 'lawn bowling' tournament, and the winner got a free rug -- which, a rug is what set everything in motion in the Big Lebowski movie itself. So, just to be hanging out with a turtle mascot in a bath robe, drinking white Russians, lawn bowling on a tennis court next to a baseball stadium, classic hippie-era Rock n' Roll playing over the sound system -- although, of course, no Eagles -- was one of those really unique moments."

What to look for in 2022: Technically, the FSL hasn't crowned a champion since 2018, when the Fort Myers Miracle raised the flag. Hurricane Dorian forced the cancellation of the circuit's playoffs a year later, and COVID-19 put an end to the Minor League season before it could begin in 2020. Bradenton's title last season was its second since 2016 and while technically not under the guise of the Florida State League, the Marauders will attempt to become the first back-to-back champion since Tampa in 2009-10. With the exception of the Rookie-level Arizona and Florida Complex Leagues, many of baseball's newest prospects -- fresh out of college or high school -- will call the FSL home due to its re-designation as a Single-A circuit.

Michael Avallone is a contributor to Follow him on Twitter @MavalloneMiLB.