Image Sources: Minor League Ballparks and Ballpark Review
This week I will be returning to northern Florida for the first time since September 12, 1986, my 14th birthday and the day we moved back home to Maine. What do I remember over the last quarter century? What is going through my mind? Let’s find out…
It was truly a dump even then, seventeen years before it would finally be put out of its dated misery. But in 1983, to a ten-year-old kid from Maine who had never even seen a minor league game, Sam. W. Wolfson Park, home of the Jacksonville Suns, was magic.
My dad took my brother and me to a few games over the 1982 season, and our connection to the game, the park and each other solidified every time. I inherited my love of baseball from my dad, naturally. He is pure Brooklyn. Dad was crushed when the Dodgers left in 1958, and fell in love again when the Mets were born in 1962. I grew up loving the Red Sox, Mets and Brooklyn Dodgers, in that order.
In a time when Astroturf and heinous multipurpose stadiums ruled the game, Wolfson Park was a last-gasp of old-school glory, with real grass (!), brick and beam, portal windows and a wheezy organ. I can still taste the hot dogs and smell the fresh breeze, which was tinted with the St. John’s River and the stink of burnt coffee from the nearby Maxwell House roasting plant.
And the park carried shared history. Mets greats Nolan Ryan and Tom Seaver pitched here!
In 1982/1983, Jacksonville was a AA affiliate of the Kansas City Royals, so we saw plenty of current and soon-to-be major leaguers, including pitchers Danny Jackson, Mark Gubicza and Brett Saberhagen. TV had not fully saturated the game at this level, so it was still magical to sit close enough to actually see major league ballplayers, to see their expressions and mannerisms, to hear them talk, to BE there.
Nothing, however, was ever as magical than the night of March 9th, 1983, when the Yankees came to town.
My grandmother lived in Brooklyn until 1981, and when we went down to visit during the Saturday Night Fever ‘70s, the Mets were nowhere. The Yankees were burning up The Bronx (which was literally burning!), and my brother and I were enraptured, though we were both die-hard New England Red Sox fans. (My brother Eric was born while my parents lived in Carteret, New Jersey, but I don’t hold that against him.) In the ’70s and early ‘80s, we fell under the spell of the Billy Martin/Dave Winfield/Graig Nettles Yankees.
And those Yankees were playing an exhibition game against Jacksonville University at Wolfson Park, and we were going.
I don’t remember much of the game, other than we were somehow allowed to sit ON THE FIELD, and that my bro and I sat, in our Rawlings baseball pants, on the chalk of the third base line, a few hundred feet from our idol Nettles at third. Billy Martin probably got ejected, and he probably kicked some dirt on the way for show. Dave Winfield (George Steinbrenner sarcastically called him “Mr. May” in comparison to “Mr. October” Reggie Jackson. Steinbrenner – the Man Who Wrecked The Yankees – is dead, and I still have my Winfield model glove. It’s a minor last laugh, but nevertheless.) probably went on a tear. And that rookie at first, kid named Mattingly, probably looked pretty good. But I remember we sat ON THE FIELD behind Nettles, gloves in hand, and worshiped the ground the New York Yankees walked on, even as we sat on the same ground.
My bro and I made it on to the cover of the 1983 Suns yearbook, pictured from behind sitting on the third base line. And somewhere I probably still have the t-shirt: grey with a black ringer and silk-screened with the ticket from that game and the caption, “The Night The Lights Went On: In Jacksonville” (the game was a benefit to raise funds for lights for the JU field).
I despise the New York Yankees organization, and the greed and arrogance that allowed them to tear down the magnificent Yankee Stadium, co-opt a public park on which to build a new faux-Yankee Stadium with $1,250 (PER GAME) seats, a concrete moat surrounding those seats and $35 parking with no refunds for rain-outs. I am a die-hard Red Sox fan, and thanks to my dad I still love the Mets. And I am a practical nostalgist: I love old-fashioned and retro, but not at the expense of comfort and practicality. Wolfson Park Jacksonville was dated twenty years before it finally fell, and good riddance.
But damn, I wish I could revisit that night at that great old ballpark with those damn Yankees all over again.