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On baseball

As park is left behind, memories spring to mind

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / March 30, 2011

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — The farewell to City of Palms Park yesterday didn’t exactly generate a lot of emotion. And that’s too bad.

It was a ballpark built with a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. Many people who lived in this area had their homes taken by eminent domain, and families were displaced. I can still remember the lady who wouldn’t leave, sitting on her front porch with the bulldozer waiting to level her house. She finally relented.

While the ballpark didn’t have a great economic impact on the immediate area — the city spent $9.9 million to demolish 173 households and relocate the residents — it got the Red Sox to move to Fort Myers from the sleepy central Florida town of Winter Haven. It was a pretty ballpark nestled in downtown, surrounded by palm trees, and it was packed for every game.

Sometimes the old Red Sox regime — John Harrington, the late Haywood Sullivan and John Donovan, John Buckley, Jim Healey, and a number of other people — doesn’t get enough credit for things it did to improve the fan experience, but this ballpark was one of them.

Maybe it wasn’t perfect. The minor league complex was 2.3 miles down Edison Avenue, and we always wondered why it wasn’t all built together, but it was a good facility.

Yesterday was the last game here for the Red Sox and it was a pretty comfortable place to watch a ballgame. If the city is lucky, it will get the Washington Nationals or Milwaukee Brewers to come here and use the complex.

The Sox will move into the proverbial “state of the art’’ facility on the other side of town, near the airport, complete with six minor league fields and plenty of room for a retail mall like Patriots Place.

A room tax levied against tourists will pay for the $88 million project, which will have top-of-the-line clubhouses, weight rooms, medical facilities, the works. Guess it’s stuff that teams need nowadays.

City of Palms opened to the Red Sox on March 6, 1993, with a game against the Twins. The Sox left it yesterday with a 1-1 tie against the Rays before 8,015. In 266 games, the Sox drew 1,818,677 fans, an average of 6,837.

City of Palms had some character to it, but let’s face it, it’s all about money, and the new place will have 3,000 more seats at high prices and six luxury boxes compared with one here. All of this became possible after Sarasota came calling; the Sox could have left for there if Fort Myers didn’t sweeten the pot.

When the Sox moved here, it was somewhat devastating to people who had bought homes in Winter Haven and now had to sell because the team was leaving. But once they got here and saw City of Palms, many people fell in love with the area.

While Winter Haven brought us the infamous Elks Club scandal, Roger Clemens wearing headphones and avoiding Butch Hobson, the alligator chasing Oil Can Boyd in the parking lot, and the infamous “Can’s Film Festival,’’ there were few controversies once the Sox got to Fort Myers. And nothing to compare with Wade Boggs’s sex-addition admission.

But the first year City of Palms opened, John Valentin caused a stir when he ripped the condition of the infield, getting into a public argument with then-Mayor Wilbur Smith, who threw out the first pitch yesterday.

Fort Myers native Mike Greenwell got the first hit here, a first-inning single against Scott Erickson. Clemens pitched three shutout innings in game the Sox would win, 2-1. The Twins had two future Hall of Famers in their outfield, Dave Winfield and Kirby Puckett, while the Red Sox had Andre Dawson, who was inducted into the Hall last July.

Clay Buchholz started the last game and Mike Cameron had the final Red Sox hit, a seventh-inning single.

The ballpark lasted through five Red Sox managers — Hobson, Kevin Kennedy, Jimy Williams, Grady Little, and Terry Francona — and three general managers — Lou Gorman, who did so much in the design and building of the facility, Dan Duquette, and Theo Epstein.

For many years, Johnny Pesky was a fixture down the right-field line, sitting on a chair and signing autographs through most of the game. Pesky, 92, was not here this season.

Valentin had his second controversy in March 1997 when Williams announced that Nomar Garciaparra was going to be his shortstop and that Valentin would be moved to second base. Valentin walked out of camp but returned a couple of days later, telling the media he was OK with the move after all.

Thus began the Nomar Reign. On March 10, 2010, 13 years to the day after Valentin’s return to camp, Garciaparra announced his retirement from baseball at a news conference at City of Palms, having signed a one-day contract with the Sox.

There were two memorable Yankees-Sox games, one in 2004 after the Sox had blown the ALCS in 2003, and the other in 2005, after the Sox had won the World Series, overcoming a 3-0 deficit against the Yankees in the ALCS. Both times, fans bunked out at the ticket window overnight just to get a ticket or two for a spring training game.

Dice-K Mania was huge. In Daisuke Matsuzaka’s first game with the Sox, March 2, 2007, Johnny Ayers of Boston College stroked a double to left field with 200 reporters from all over the world watching.

Another interesting time came when Sox players threatened to boycott a March 19, 2008, game if their coaches weren’t paid for a Japan trip to start the season, but a deal was worked out just in time.

One of my favorite times was during the player strike of 1995, when we got to know some replacement players with pretty incredible stories. It’s when I met Ron Mahay, who was then a center fielder but wound up having a long career as a situational lefty for eight major league teams.

No, there were no real tender moments yesterday. The final game ended abruptly in a 1-1 tie because the Sox had to leave for Houston.

City of Palms Park served the Red Sox well. It’s where they got ready for two World Series championships. We’ll see if the new place can come close to that.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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