Tributes, nostalgia mark Al Lang finale

Tributes, nostalgia mark Al Lang finale

ST. PETERSBURG -- Friday morning greeted Progress Energy Park with chamber of commerce weather, a fitting tribute by the baseball gods to the final Spring Training game at the historic site of Al Lang Field.

By pressing an ear to the wind, one could almost hear famed vendor Tommy Walton hawking the dogs with his customary "Hot diggity dog!" followed by his superb rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."

Walton was just one of many treasures enjoyed by patrons while attending waterfront baseball at Al Lang Field. Next season the Rays will relocate to Port Charlotte, Fla., and they eventually hope to relocate their regular-season home to an open-air ballpark on the site of Al Lang. But Friday served as a funeral for a friend whose headstone will read Al Lang Field, 1922-2008. Represented by the dash in between are 83 years of exhibition baseball.

Initially, the park was known as Waterfront Park (1922-46), then it became Al Lang Stadium (1947-75), Al Lang Field (1977-97) and, finally, Progress Energy Park in 1998. The only exceptions since 1922 when baseball was not played on the site came during World War II, when travel restrictions prohibited teams from going south for the spring (1943-45), and when the Cardinals and Mets played at Campbell Park while Al Lang Stadium was being built (1976).

The park has hosted countless Hall of Famers during their respective journeys toward Cooperstown. Nine teams have called the facility home, including 22 World Series champions, along with two expansion franchises, the Mets (1962) and the Rays (1998).

Rays manager Joe Maddon first saw Al Lang after hitchhiking to see a Mets-Cardinals game while he played college baseball for Lafayette against the local teams.

"I'm kind of a nostalgic freak, an historian with Major League Baseball," Maddon said, "so when I look at all the people who came here to watch games as well as participated, you can't find a better setting for a Spring Training baseball game to be played. So those who haven't had a chance to encounter it, it's too bad, because this truly is the essence of Spring Training."

Rays broadcaster Joe Magrane played at Al Lang as a Minor League player in the Cardinals' organization, and later in the Major Leagues while with St. Louis.

"People talk about the great thing about baseball is the way it connects its future with its past," Magrane said. "I don't think it was ever more evident than right here at this ballpark. When you think of the tradition of the players on this very field that have come before us, it's quite impressive."

Magrane will always remember the scenic aspects of Al Lang.

"When I would be on the hill, I'd look to the right and see the marina and see the water and the beach, basically, and I'd think, 'If I work a little bit faster, that's the much sooner I could be sipping a cold one in those very circumstances,'" Magrane said.

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A sold-out crowd of 6,759 -- the largest crowd ever at Al Lang for a Rays Spring Training game -- jammed Progress Energy Park on Friday, and they were treated to a grand ceremony.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker was joined by the St. Petersburg City Council in making a special presentation commemorating the finale; the starting lineups were introduced; a barber shop quartet named the "Songfellows" sang the national anthem; and a KC-135 Refueler based out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa did a flyover. Throwing out the first pitch were John and Hugh Fagen, great-nephews of former St. Petersburg Mayor Al Lang.

Al Lang Field commemorative posters were handed out to the first 6,500 fans through the gates and a special on-field presentation revealed the all-time Al Lang Team, a roster of the best players to call the Al Lang site their Spring Training home.

Between innings, the Rays recognized teams who played on the historic site, including the St. Petersburg Saints, Boston Braves, New York Yankees, St. Louis Cardinals, New York Mets and St. Petersburg Pelicans. And, appropriately, during the seventh-inning stretch, the Rays paid tribute to Walton, who entertained fans at Al Lang Field for nearly two decades.

To top off the day, fans were invited onto the field after the game for a free barbecue and live music. Kids were allowed the chance to run the bases and play catch on the field.

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.