The city of Tampa is known for many things -- cigars, great weather, the downtown Riverwalk, great football and hockey, and a thriving business climate. But before all of that, except for cigars, there was baseball.
Kids played the game in local parks for hours until mom's call for dinner drove them home. They played in summer leagues, sometimes coached by Cuban men steeped in the knowledge of how to play the game.
"In the late '60s and into the ‘70s, I truly believe that the Cuban guys in the baseball programs made a big difference," says Hillsborough High's Mike Heath, who played 14 years in the major leagues.
"That influence helped us young kids become better players."
Later, those kids went to their high school teams, and more than a few, like Heath, made it to the big leagues. Their names roll off the tongue of any baseball fans: Al Lopez, Tony La Russa, Lou Piniella, Wade Boggs, Dwight Gooden, Gary Sheffield, Tino Martinez, Dave Magadan, Fred McGriff, Lenny Faedo, Luis Gonzalez, Rich Monteleone, Floyd Youmans, Vance Lovelace, Steve Garvey, Bobby Sprowl, and so many more.
Lopez, La Russa, and Boggs are in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame.
Tampa Bay Rays Manager Kevin Cash played at Gaither High School in North Tampa.
New York Mets' slugger Pete Alonso of Plant High School in South Tampa was the 2019 National League Rookie of the Year after he hit 53 home runs. He has won the home run derby twice at baseball's All-Star Game.
What is it about Tampa that consistently produces such outstanding talent?
"It was just a way of life here," says Emeterio "Pop" Cuesta, who coached the Jefferson High team in West Tampa for 43 years before retiring after the 2014 season.
"That's the way it was growing up. It was always baseball. We played at MacFarlane Park [in West Tampa] and Cuscaden Park [in East Tampa]. The town grew up with a lot of ex-professional players who played in the social leagues at places like the Cuban Club and the Italian Club [in Ybor City]. The guys who played in those leagues found time to coach and taught the kids the right way to play. They gave us a lot of knowledge."
In turn, men like Cuesta and other coaches like Lou Garcia (Robinson High and HCC), Pete Mulry (Tampa Catholic), Jim Macaluso (King), Billy Reed (Hillsborough), Frank Permuy (Tampa Catholic and Gaither), and many others passed that knowledge on to new generations of players.
It wasn't just high school either. In 1970, the West Tampa Little League all-stars became the first Florida team to win the Little League Senior World Series. That was after three consecutive years in the Series of coming up short.
Belmont Heights Little League became legendary. Its all-star team reached the Little League World Series in 1973, 1975, 1980, and 1981. Gooden, Sheffield, and Derek Bell were mainstays on some of those teams.
The baseball culture here was an eye-opener to Ken Eriksen when he came from Stony Brook, N.Y. in the early 1980s to play baseball for the University of South Florida.
"My dad was stationed in MacDill Air Force Base at the time, and he briefed me on what a hotbed of baseball it was here. Tampa was still a small enough community where people rooted for each other," Eriksen says.
"It was incredible. The amazing part of it is that when you came down here for the first time, you saw the way guys picked up a ball and threw it was not the way we were taught up north. It was a classroom every day. The nuances that those guys gave us about the game were great. It was an amazing teaching experience. That tree of knowledge was incredible."
Eriksen has coached the USF women's softball team since 1996 when the game was still slow-pitch, and built the program into a power. The Bulls have 15 appearances in the NCAA Tournament on Eriksen's watch, including a berth in the 2012 Women's College World Series.
He uses the lessons learned from his baseball background every day.
"Relationships -- that's what I have learned is the most important aspect in teaching lessons to young people. If you don't establish some level of a relationship, then all your lessons do not have an avenue for that lesson to travel," he says.
"The athletes nowadays are so incredibly better. They're faster. Title IX helped, no doubt about it. The NCAA adopting fast-pitch made it a much better game."
He does have one complaint.
"We don't have enough post-college positions in softball," Eriksen says.
In the movie "A League of Their Own," a quote from Tom Hanks may have best summed up the essence of Tampa baseball.
"Baseball is what gets inside you," he says. "It's what lights you up. You can't deny that."
For proof, we go back to Mike Heath.
He played in 1,325 big-league games and was part of three post-season teams, including the 1978 World Series. Those were great memories. But what does he also remember?
"I was 12 years old and playing for North Seminole against West Tampa," he says. "It was for the championship. I made an error in that game and got thrown out at the plate. We lost 2-1. I never got over it."
This story is underwritten by the Tampa Bay Rays in a new media partnership with 83 Degrees Media. Next up for the Rays at Tropicana Field in April 2022? The Red Sox. The Mariners. The Twins. Get your Rays tickets at this link.