The sun blazes in the haze of Florida’s humidity. The heat seems like a test of human endurance, but there are people outside, at noon, during the peak hours when UV rays strike would-be skin cancer victims. Yet men are running, swinging, sliding, spitting and still finding the strength to acknowledge each others’ existence. The “all-American” way of life, it seems, has little fear of exhaustion and heat strokes. This is baseball.
The Florida Instructional League (FIL) is under way and the Baltimore Orioles will host games at their Ed Smith Stadium here in Sarasota through Oct. 11, though they will also travel to other teams’ stadiums during this time. Now and for the next eight days, minor league Orioles players will practice and play games against the other teams in the Southern Division of the Gulf Coast League (GCL): the Boston Red Sox, the Minnesota Twins and the Tampa Bay Rays. The GCL is a Rookie League made up of minor league teams that operate in Florida, wherever their home city may be.
The Orioles’ FIL games started on Sept. 16 and all the games are free to attend.
The Instructional League is a chance for new drafts and younger players to get some extra practice before spring training begins. Major league teams choose players from any of their affiliate minor league teams to attend. Major league players may also join in, perhaps to recover from an injury or learn a new position.
“For these younger players, [FIL] is basically to indoctrinate them into professional baseball,” Manager for the Bowie Baysox Gary Kendall said. The Baysox are a Double-A affiliate of the Orioles and Kendall is currently at Ed Smith Stadium acting as a minor league coach for the Orioles FIL.
Ryan Minor, Low-A Manager for the Delmarva Shorebirds, another Orioles affiliate, is also acting as a coach during the Orioles FIL. According to Minor, the players that were invited this year range from 18 to 24 years-old. “They’re usually out of high school or college,” Minor said.
One such player is 18 year-old Sean McAdams, who went was drafted as a pitcher for the minor league Orioles this past summer.
“My high school season, I played at Cardinal Mooney in Sarasota and I started getting some scouts and […] when the draft came around […] my name popped out for the Orioles,” McAdams said. “I got a call afterward to say congratulations, but I had no idea that I was going to get drafted that round. It’s a pretty cool experience, just playing with older guys and guys from different states and nations.”
Despite being a Maryland team, Kendall said having a stadium here in Sarasota has helped the Orioles gain Floridian fans. The stadium is open year-round to major league players while minor league players usually practice in Twin Lakes Park, also in Sarasota.
Although the Ed Smith Stadium was built in 1989 and remains under the ownership of Sarasota County, it was not operated by the Orioles until 2010, when renovations were made to the building for their use.
“When the team committed to coming here, it was a lot of excitement but it drew some opposition because there were going to be funds that would be needed [for the renovations],” Kendall said.
The renovations included changes to the Twin Lakes Park complex and totaled $31.2 million. Of this, $23.7 million is from the Sarasota County Tourist Development Tax and $7.5 million was provided by a State of Florida Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development (OTTED) grant, according to Program Manager for Environmental and Major Facilities Carolyn Eastwood. To date, Eastwood said, the Orioles have additionally put in $8.29 million for further changes over the years.
“We were going to put so much [money] in and then the city of Sarasota was going to put so much in and we were doing it during recession times. There are people in town that probably didn’t think we needed a baseball team in Sarasota. But I think once the town saw what was being designed here […] all they do is comment on how nice this facility is and how they come by here now and go to games here, so I think people have adjusted and accepted it.”
Once the major league club moved to Ed Smith, they began doing outreach programs in Sarasota. “[We were] just trying to make an impact in the community and show that it’s not always about taking, it’s about giving also,” Kendall said.
Their outreach programs in Sarasota have included summer programs for children, baseball instruction for special needs children, fundraisers for All Faiths Food Bank and Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Sun Coast, free tickets to games for disadvantaged children and adults and a partnership with Sarasota County Libraries in which children who read at least three books in one month were rewarded with a free game ticket.
Kendall said having the Orioles in Sarasota has given back to the local economy as well. “I stay in a hotel when I’m down here and you see hotels being full even times where money is kinda tight,” Kendall said. “You still see the hotel business and the restaurant business because down here during the spring, you’ll have 150 players sometimes and now you’re talking about 150 players plus their families and friends and people that congregate down here and use the airlines, so it’s really helped the community.”
After FIL is over for the Orioles, spring training begins.
“For spring training, the big league team will play here and the minor leagues will be over in Twin Lakes Park before the big league season starts,” Minor said. “But there’s a year round program for [players that] get hurt in the big leagues and need some time to rehab. This complex is open year round, so some guys that are injured will stay here all season to do conditioning, strengthening and rehab programming.”
As for Florida baseball, the Tampa Bay Rays came to the Ed Smith Stadium to play the Orioles on Sept. 29. Assistant of Minor League Operations for the Rays Jeff McLerran said their FIL season started on Sept. 17 and runs through Oct. 5, during which the Rays will play 14 games. They are hosting their FIL games in Port Charlotte.
When acting as the traveling team, the Rays bring about 45 players, according to McLerran.
“Mostly it’s our younger players, but it’s a mix,” McLerran said. “We probably have about ten from our four youngest teams each that we kind of select to come here to get some one on one individualized instruction [….] We probably have close to 290 minor league players total.”
McLerran said he feels good about the minor league players the Rays invited to be in the FIL.
“We’re really happy with the guys that worked down here,” McLerran said. “For a lot of them they’ve been playing everyday since the first of March so you worry that some guys mite be worn down after a long season, but we couldn’t be happier with the way everybody’s going out, playing hard and really using this time to get better […] I think the guys really see this as an opportunity to get better so they’ve been working hard.”
The newer drafts, McLerran said, move up according to their experience and their talent.
As far as which of the FIL players he thinks could make it to the big leagues, McLerran said, “We like to think that everybody here has a shot. I mean, we wouldn’t invite them to instruction league if we didn’t think they had major league possibilities, but I mean I wouldn’t say that any one guy is necessarily further along than another right now. We think that we’ve got quite a few major league players out here today, they just need the time to get there.”