FORT MYERS, Fla. — As thousands of people drive past Terry Park, on, Palm Beach Boulevard every day, it's a park that is very unassuming.
Just another baseball facility near the downtown core of a city.
Also, the location where, for decades, the best baseball players on the planet got ready for the season.
Really, too many to name. Baby Ruth in the 1920s, Lou Gehrig in the 1930s. Jackie Robinson. Mickey Mantle. Roberto Clemente. Bob Gibson. George Brett.
Add in legendary teams calling Terry Park home for spring training. Starting in 1925, the Philadelphia A’s, then owned and managed by Connie Mack, started off fourteen years, playing here until 1938. Cleveland followed in 1941 and 1942 before a spring training lull hit Fort Myers.
The Pittsburgh Pirates, including the 1960 World Series champions, played fourteen seasons as well, from 1955 to 1968. The following year, the Kansas City Royals started their first year as an expansion team, kicking off 19 spring trainings at Terry Park until 1987.
Fort Myers has been the home of the Minnesota Twins (1991) and Boston Red Sox (1993) for decades as each team plays in updated and modern facilities close to Interstate 75, complete with large parking lots and all of the amenities one expects from a spring training facility in 2023.
Yet, back at Terry Park, at the corner of Palm Beach and Veronica Shoemaker, thousands of players came, just a couple of miles from downtown Fort Myers. Thousands of memories even still today.
“We had so much incredible talent,” said Mark Gubicza, two-time All Star who pitched for the Royals from 1984-1996, with five spring trainings at Terry Park. “I loved Fort Myers. I really loved Fort Myers in my time there and I tell my wife and kids. I always remember Terry Park being an intimate stadium where you felt the connection with the fans.”
Gubicza notes, forty years ago, the process wasn’t always the easiest.
“We had to go to Sarasota for our minor-league camp. Most camps, especially here in Arizona, the minor-league facilities are connected with the major-league facilities. There were times we had to drive back-and-forth from Sarasota to throw batting practice and drive back.”
Willie Aikens played for the Royals from 1980 to 1984, including five spring trainings in Fort Myers in the midst of the team’s first run of glory days. “One of the good things about Fort Myers was that I looked forward. To was eating some of the soul food down there,” said Aiken. “They had a place not too far from the ballpark.”
Aikens also noted this era was a different time in Southwest Florida and in baseball. The facilities were far more basic compared with the palaces of today and the population has also shifted as more people moved to the region.
“Most of the players used to say ‘we gotta get ready to go to the old folks down there because they used to have a lot of old folks (in Fort Myers),” said Aikens with a laugh. “I’m at that point now. I’m 68 years old.”
Terry Park turned out to be the setting for Greg Pryor’s career turning point. The Florida native pushed through the minor leagues for years before breaking through with Texas in 1976 and a stellar run with the Chicago White Sox.
Until the spring of 1982 when his world changed behind the outfield fence after playing in a “B-game” against the Royals.
“After the game was over, (Tony) La Russa, my manager at the time told me I just got traded to the Kansas City Royals right there at Terry Park,” said Pryor, a reserve infielder who played for Kansas City from 1982 to 1987, including on the 1985 World Series champions. “I drove down the next day in my car and found my way to Terry Park. I had a wonderful time.”
“It wasn’t the most beautiful park but I had spent seven years in the minor leagues so it was heaven to me,” said Pryor, who also talked about how packed the stands were as the Royals won seven division titles and made two World Series during their final dozen years in Fort Myers.
Pryor also talked about the long road trips. In 2023, Lee County and Charlotte County have four spring training clubs (note: the Tampa Bay Rays are not in Port Charlotte this year due to hurricane. damage). Decades ago, the Royals were playing in a relatively remote outpost, taking trips to Sarasota County, Tampa or to the east coast for most of their road games.
All the players described the intimate nature of Terry Park, with the proximity of the fans to the field and the players. Their activities, after the spring training games, was as varied as the roster itself. Gubicza said he enjoyed going crabbing and hitting the beach at Sanibel. Aikens and his teammates would find themselves at the dog track in Bonita Springs. Pryor said he and other teammates, such as Hall of Fame third baseman George Brett would try to hit ‘em straight at Fiddlesticks.
Terry Park is on the National Register of Historic Places. To this day, the ballfields are still kept up and maintained, often used for rec leagues and lower-level games. Just the next time you drive past, give it a look and think of the decades when this was one of the jewels of spring training.