Time, money, access: A baseball hotbed for a century, Tampa evolves as game’s economic winds shift

TAMPA, Fla. – Pete Alonso was born nearly nine decades after Al Lopez, but he knows all about El Señor.

When you grow up with a bat in your hand in Hillsborough County, you learn all the legends.

“Tampa’s just super, super rich in baseball culture,” says Alonso, the New York Mets’ 24-year-old first baseman and Rookie of the Year favorite after slugging 20 home runs in his first 59 major league games. “You can date it back to the ‘20s and ‘30s. Babe Ruth apparently hit a 600-foot home run at an exhibition game.

“Gary Sheffield, Tino Martinez, Gonzo (Luis Gonzalez), Lou Piniella, Tony La Russa… Tampa’s always been just a super-super baseball hub.”

Indeed, since Lopez in 1928 became the first area player to reach the big leagues and went on to a 19-year playing career and 17-year Hall of Fame run as a manager, the pipeline from Tampa to the big leagues is perhaps unrivaled, a group that spans Hall of Famers like Wade Boggs to cultural icons such as Dwight Gooden.

Yet the newest heroes also symbolize a greater demographic shift throughout baseball.

Mets first baseman Pete Alonso attended Plant High School before going to the University of Florida. (Photo: Andy Marlin, USA TODAY Sports)

Alonso’s alma mater, HB Plant High School, is just eight miles from Hillsborough High School, two institutions that have produced a bounty of major league talent.

From 1980 to 1997, Hillsborough produced 27 major league draft picks, including six first-rounders. Included in the haul: Gooden (drafted fith overall in 1982), the 1985 Cy Young Award winner and his nephew, Sheffield (sixth overall, '86), who went on to hit 509 home runs.

Plant was far less prolific in that span: Though 1976 draftee Boggs was already charting a path to Cooperstown, the school produced not quite half the pros as Hillsborough – 13 draftees, just one in the first round.

In the ensuing two decades, however, the fortunes reversed.

Since 1998, 13 Hillsborough alums were MLB draftees, just one a first-round pick. Plant, meanwhile, has produced 15 draftees and five first-round picks, including three in the past five years.

The shift is felt at the major league level, too: On Opening Day, Alonso became the sixth Plant graduate to reach the majors since 2007. That was the year outfielder Elijah Dukes became, for now, the last Hillsborough product to debut in the big leagues.

They are just two schools in one town, yet it’s likely not mere coincidence this reversal occurred at a time when development in baseball has become increasingly tied to access – to personal coaches, superior equipment and facilities and, most notably, pricey travel-ball teams that enable year-round access and exposure to a most challenging game.

As Major League Baseball aims to grow the game – or at least slow its withering relevance among younger audiences – its efforts to improve access meet a headwind of financial resistance.

“It’s really hard,” says Phillies outfielder and former NL MVP Andrew McCutchen, who grew up in Polk County, east of Tampa. “It was hard for me, too, as a kid, but now it’s getting really hard for these kids who are maybe in my situation.

“It’s coming to the point where it’s bracketed – it’s starting to turn to families and kids that are bracketed to where they can afford where they go. And it works for them.”

'You see how crazy it was'

Tucked just off Dale Mabry Highway, Plant High School is easy to miss among the strip malls that line Tampa’s main thoroughfare. Its diamond looks like thousands of others across the nation, save for the sign that captures its baseball legacy: Wade Boggs Field.

Walk past the baseball and football stadiums and the water tower that bears the school’s name and you stumble into the Golfview neighborhood, dotted by gated estates, some with estimated values north of $2 million.

Certainly, the gorgeous homes that abut Palma Ceia Golf and Country Club are far from representative of the entire Plant attendance area. Yet it’s also not a stretch to suggest most of Plant’s MLB products were equipped to thrive in baseball’s evolving developmental landscape.

A sign welcomes visitors to Wade Boggs Field at Plant High School in Tampa. (Photo: Gabe Lacques, USA TODAY Spots)

Alonso’s baseball career began at 3, when his father, also named Pete, asked him if he wanted to play T-ball. The minimum age was 4, which was no hurdle for a child that Mets teammates now call Polar Bear.

“My dad lied and said I was 4,” Alonso recalls. “He was just like, ‘Well, do you wanna play?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I wanna play.’ He said, ‘OK, you’re 4.’

“I blended in with the other kids.”

And so began a youth career marked by playing up against older opponents. Alonso began playing travel ball at 8 and has been a “baseball junkie,” he says, ever since. Alonso also played basketball, lacrosse and soccer growing up, but his passion for baseball was undeniable. He was eventually chosen in the second round of the 2016 draft out of the University of Florida.

“My parents …I can’t thank them enough,” he says of the elder Pete, who’s retired from a professional staffing firm, and mother Michelle, a biologist who scaled back her career once her son was born. “They’re the ones who instilled a work ethic and drive. There was no coddling, necessarily.

“There’s a saying in the minor leagues – if you don’t like it, play better. They definitely instilled that in me at a young age. I can’t be thankful enough for it.”

The first family of Plant baseball, at the moment, are the Tuckers – Preston, like Alonso, was a draftee out of Florida, in 2012, while Kyle was the fifth overall pick in 2015. The elder Tucker, currently in Class AAA with the White Sox after spending parts of three seasons in the majors, now realizes how intense the youth ball circuit – spring school season to summer to fall ball – was.

“I was out of college watching my brother do it,” he says, “and you see how crazy it was how much you play. You’re definitely getting the exposure and all the reps you need, aside from the actual high school regular season.”

Like Alonso, Preston Tucker now realizes his parents – Mike, a civil engineer and Lisa, a retired audiologist – struck a happy medium between support and burning out their kids.

“They always wanted me to go out and play, and never turned down a tournament in Georgia, or Miami, where it would take away a weekend,” says Preston, who still uses Plant's facilities for off-season workouts. “But they never pushed me playing professionally or more than I wanted to.”

Kyle Tucker, a consensus top-15 prospect trying to knock down the door from Class AAA with the talent-rich Houston Astros, agrees. He also played a fair amount of soccer growing up, and credits his older brother’s example, the tutelage of Plant coach Dennis Braun and the atmosphere of excellence around the program as contributing factors.

“It definitely makes you better,” Kyle Tucker says. “You see a guy field a ground ball cleanly for 10 years, you’re going to do the same thing.”

Privilege plays a part

As baseball becomes further optimized and technology joins equipment, facilities and coaching as the great separators, it stands to reason the greatest talent will emerge from affluent areas across the country.

Mickey Moniak, the No. 1 overall pick in 2016, had genetics on his side – grandfather Bill played six seasons in the Red Sox system and father Matt, now a stockbroker and financial consultant, played collegiately.

And since he was 8, Moniak played against the best of the best in the suburbs of San Diego – and beyond.

“It’s huge,” says Moniak, now a Class AA outfielder who received a $6.1 million bonus from the Phillies in 2016. “As much as you can get out and play with these top guys across the country, it’s only beneficial.

“I tried to play as much as I could, bounce around, had buddies on different teams. Being in game experiences, learning stuff on the fly. Playing as many games as possible.”

Genetics matter. Location certainly matters – this year, 17 of 32 first-round choices hailed from just three states: California, Texas and North Carolina. Class matters as well, even if harder to quantify.

“It’s a hard question. It’s a good question,” says Austin Romine, the Yankees’ backup catcher and California native who with brother Andrew has combined for 11 years of major league service time. “We’re still seeing kids coming from nothing that are playing, and it’s still God-given talent. I was very blessed and came from a place where there was a league and there was travel ball.

“I’ve played in the Dominican and other places. I couldn’t imagine not having what I had.”

A golden era 

Hillsborough High School sits nearly in the shadows of Interstate 275, a freeway that upon its completion in 1964 essentially divided Tampa in two. Most notably, it waylaid the Central Park neighborhood, home to many African-Americans who saw single-family homes destroyed in favor of housing projects and the massive interstate that curtailed pedestrian access.

Years of racial tension crested in 1967, after the shooting of a black teenager by a white Tampa police officer provoked a civil uprising that highlighted the need for greater resources in the area.

Out of that came Belmont Heights Little League, which fed into Hillsborough, and cultivated a golden age for Tampa baseball.

Belmont Heights reached three Little League World Series, and its 1980-81 squads were an absurd collection of talent: Sheffield, Gooden, Derek Bell and Carl Everett eventually were major league All-Stars, World Series champions or both.

A signs commemorating Gary Sheffield marks the entrances to the Belmont Heights Little League fields. (Photo: Gabe Lacques, USA TODAY ports)

They lost the Little League international final to Taiwan in consecutive years, though Sheffield won a world championship with a juniors team a year later.

At the time, African-Americans comprised nearly 20% of the big league population. And the melting pot of Tampa burst with talent for the next decade, as Belmont Heights/Hillsborough clashed with West Tampa Little League/Jefferson High School.

“I saw Dwight Gooden pitch to Fred McGriff, and this was not some monumental occurrence. This was just a Tuesday afternoon. This is what you saw in Tampa,” says Joey Johnston, whose career as a Tampa-area sportswriter began in 1980. “You knew these guys were great.”

After McGriff, future World Series heroes Tino Martinez and Luis Gonzalez were Jefferson teammates. In 1990, the World Series was a particular point of Tampa pride, pitting Reds manager Piniella (Jesuit High School) vs. Athletics manager La Russa (Jefferson).

The talent cluster was about to break up – or at least, be redistributed.

Pitcher Sam Militello, a sixth-round pick of the Yankees in 1990, was the last Jefferson draftee to appear in more than two major league games. At Hillsborough, outfielder Jason Romano in 1997 was the last of the school’s half-dozen first-round draft picks in a run that began in 1981.

Hillsborough coach Billy Reed, who was also instrumental in the development of Belmont Heights Little League, retired after the ’97 season.

Reed died at 86 in December 2017, a few months after Belmont Heights players like Gooden and Sheffield reunited to raise money for the struggling little league.

One of the Belmont Heights Little League fields is named after Dwight Gooden. (Photo: Gabe Lacques, USA TODAY Sports)

By then, though, the influence of local rec leagues – even high schools – had diminished with the rise of travel ball. The 2019 Hillsborough Terriers went 8-15, with a roster of kids whose baseball experience spanned a wide spectrum.

Jack Slater is the son of Mets assistant hitting coach Tom Slater. Center fielder Terence Doston will head to West Virginia to play football and baseball.

And there’s a plurality of working-class kids, some of whose parents, coach Bryan Burgess notes, may not be able to make a team event until the senior banquet.

“If they don’t have the baseball background and are competing against kids that have the baseball instincts and have been tested in games this weekend, it can be difficult,” says Burgess, who is taking the head coaching reins from his retiring cohort, Kenny White. “We might get a kid at tryouts from north Tampa wearing his Little League All-Star shirt, and that might be the last time he played.

“At the high school level now, you have to play the hand you’re dealt, and make the most of it.”

Kids with talent but not significant means face a similar challenge.

McCutchen, the 11th overall pick in 2005, credits several travel and youth coaches who championed his cause and closed gaps his working parents were not able to fill.

“I was lucky and blessed enough to have people around me who cared about me and took me in as their own. My family couldn’t provide,” says McCutchen. “I had people who came in and said to my family, ‘We’ll take care of him.’  I’m a young kid and we’re saying to this family we’ve just met, ‘If it’s going to help him, OK. We can’t be there – we have to work.’"

Doston can relate.

He was Hillsborough’s best player this year, a center fielder who batted .373 with a .449 on-base percentage. Doston expects to play football and baseball at West Virginia but was monitoring this week’s baseball draft in the event he was picked high enough to be wooed away from the Mountaineers.

It was a youth football teammate, Doston says, who vouched for his baseball skills and got him on a travel baseball team when he was 10 years old.

As word of his talent spread, he said, he landed on better travel teams in subsequent years. He says his mother, an MRI tech, covers what she can and his teams pick up a portion of the costs.

“I didn’t really have to pay for a lot,” he says. “They just tell me, 'OK, we got you.’ I think it helped me a lot, because it helped me experience a top level of baseball, helped me get better playing in a more advanced environment.”

He's played in tournaments as far away as Arizona. Should he get drafted, Doston would be the first from Hillsborough since outfielder Jhalan Jackson was a seventh-round pick of the Yankees in 2015.

Says Burgess: “I know Terence to be everything you want a kid to be. She seems to always be there supporting him, as a single mom, doing the best she can and paying what she can.”

According to government data, the disadvantaged student population at Hillsborough is 68% – it’s 76% at Jefferson – and while Burgess notes many aspiring ballplayers may stop playing thanks to a realistic assessment of their skills, McCutchen wonders how many potential players are missed.

“They noticed the player I was and they were like ‘Man, I want him on the team,’” McCutchen says. “But what if there’s a kid who has the same ability but doesn’t have that? If I didn’t have that, I probably wouldn’t be playing baseball.

“I’d probably be playing football.”

Re-defining 'inner city'

The banners honoring nine of Plant’s greatest players – Boggs and the Tuckers among them – are substantial enough to cover most of the outfield fence.

Just one of the players – Baltimore Orioles reliever Mychal Givens – is African American, among the 7.7% of blacks on opening-day rosters. He was a Plant Panther by happenstance, a circumstance that informs his actions to this day.

“I went to school in a rich-school neighborhood,” he says, “but I was not privileged at all. I just got lucky.”

His great-grandfather purchased a house in the 1960s and by the time Givens was school-age, the ever-changing attendance boundaries placed the home in Plant’s area. Getting on that track, he says, made all the difference – in the friendships he's maintained to the baseball connections he retains to this day.

A view of downtown Tampa's skyline. (Photo: Joe Raedle, Getty Images)

Like McCutchen and Doston, Givens played travel ball thanks largely to the magnanimity of coaches who accepted an upfront fee from Givens and let fund-raising cover most of the expenses.

Yet he also sees exploitation in the travel ball sector.

“These teams are asking $2,000 to $4,000 for the summer,” says Givens. “Who can afford that now? Little League is where I developed. I was a great player, but I developed with my friends in Little League. Travel ball was secondary.

“Now, it’s flip-flopped. Nobody plays Little League anymore. Every parent is like, ‘Oh, my kid is on travel ball. My kid is the best.’ No, let’s be honest. Your kid’s probably not that good.

“They’re taking your money to make yourself feel good.”

So Givens is getting in the game himself.

His charitable foundation – Givens Back – and travel-ball team – Inner City Baseball of Tampa – are helmed by two close friends who attended Hillsborough and Gaither high schools.

“I want to make ‘inner city’ better defined,” says Givens. “Not just, ‘Inner city baseball, oh that’s for less privileged kids.’ No.

“To me, 'inner city' means the city that you’re from. It’s the city of Tampa. I have kids all over – from a poor neighborhood to a middle class neighborhood to a rich neighborhood.  Getting all those kids to understand each others’ cultures – a rich kid playing with a kid who can’t play, so they can learn and play with each other and have a good foundation.”

Givens’ efforts mirror those of Major League Baseball, which since 2006 has opened nine urban youth academies. Statistics provided by MLB indicate 150,000 youths will participate in its Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program this year, and that African-American players have accounted for 19% of first-round draft selections since 2012.

Still, equal access is a moving target as costs and expectations rise.

“In the last five years, there’s definitely been a more concerted interest in the pay-to-play piece,” says Tony Reagins, MLB’s executive vice president of baseball and softball development. “Travel ball’s been around since I was a kid, 40 years ago. It just wasn’t as sophisticated. Now, you have major corporations involved.

“But if we continue to implement programming and identify and recognize an issue with pay to play and access, we’ll see progress. How we’re able to scale that is the challenge.”

Givens hopes to chip away, too, taking a cue from those who were generous with him to help level a playing field that continues to tilt.

“They didn’t ask for money out of me,” he says of his youth coaches. “The biggest thing they asked of me was to grow and be a good kid and get to the big leagues.

“And if you don’t get to the big leagues, be something with your life.”

Source: Read Full Article