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Mudville: December 3, 2022 6:45 am PDT
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Before Margaritaville

BY KEVIN KERNAN

There was once minor league baseball in Key West, Florida, long before Margaritaville was a state of mind.

Eight years before the song was released by Jimmy Buffett – and two years before Buffett visited Key West with his musical buddy Jerry Jeff Walker and walked into the Chart Room Bar at the Pier House Motel on a November night in 1971 to begin his Key West adventure, there was a minor league baseball team there managed by Don Zimmer, of all people.

The year was 1969, and the Key West Padres were born and Mike Port, who went on to become a major league GM and executive with MLB, was a first-year GM of the Florida State League team, an affiliate of the expansion Padres, way over on the other coast.

Zimmer was 38 years old, Port would turn 24 that summer.

Again, this was eight years before Jimmy Buffett wrote these words: “Nibblin’ on sponge cake, watching the sun bake, all of these tourists covered with oil.’’

I’ve always wondered what baseball was like in Key West and what Key West was like in 1969, my sophomore at David Brearley Regional High School in Kenilworth, N.J., some 53 years ago.

So I put in a call to Mike Port.

Now you too will know about what a unique experience it was to have pro ball in Key West in 1969 at Wickers Stadium.

First of all, the atmosphere was nothing like any other ballpark in the United States, down there at the Southern most tip of the country. This was a lot closer to baseball in Cuba, because so many of the fans escaped Castro’s Cuba to come to the United States and settled in Key West.

The passion for the game was incredible.

“Port reacted, asking, ‘Zim, where did you think we were?’ ‘I thought we were on the other side of Texas,’ Zimmer said.”

“I was there on behalf of the Padres,’’ Port told BallNine. “I was released as one of the Padres originals when we had spring training in Leesburg, Florida.’’

Port was a second baseman. He went from player to executive overnight, becoming a minor league GM … in an outpost called Key West. What a first stop on the baseball merry-go-round that would become Mike Port’s life and that is the subject of The Story this week at BallNine.

“I was supposed to go to Leesburg as Zimmer’s player-coach, but they signed a fellow they didn’t expect to sign, so I was released,’’ Port – a youthful 76 years old – told BallNine. “Came all the way back to San Diego. Zimmer was probably thrilled because as a young manager we couldn’t get the signs straight, so he was probably delighted when I was released.

“After coming back to San Diego for a week and making the rounds at brokerage houses and banks and real estate, Peter Bavasi called me, probably because I was one of the few guys in camp who had a driver’s license and asked, ‘Would you like to go to Key West as the general manager.’’

Peter Bavasi was the Padres farm director.

“The only general manager I had seen was Eddie Leishman of the early Padres Coast League days, I thought this was going to be a heck of a job because I used to see Eddie at the games, and he’d be walking around and schmoozing with the fans.’’

Port took the job and hustled back to the other side of the country.

This Key West was a little different than today’s Key West.

“Key West was kind of a wide-open town in those days,’’ Port told me. “Native people there were called Conchs after the conch shell and to say the population there were baseball fans was a substantial understatement. We never had a promotion and yet we sold out every night.

Wicker's Stadium (Monroe County Florida Public Library Flicker File – Photo taken by Property Appraiser’s office c1970; N. Roosevelt Blvd; Wicker’s Field)

“It was a Class A Florida State League club and people would scalp tickets.’’

If there was going to be a rainout, the local business community would step up to help.

“There was a fellow who was the head guy with the telephone company in that area, who was a big fan, and by golly we were going to have a game,’’ Port said. “All of a sudden five or six telephone company pumper trucks would show up to help drain the field.’’

Many years later Port was in Fenway Park talking to umpire Richie Garcia, who was from Key West. Garcia remembered those days of the ’69 Padres.

“I worked for the Post Office in Key West at the time and every night me and my cousins would go out to the ballpark and holler and throw stuff at you and Zimmer,’’ Garcia told Port with a smile.

Like I said, it was a spirited fan base. There were fishermen in the crowd too, so when they say garbage was thrown, you could bet there were some fish heads in the garbage.

“That summarized the nature of things there,’’ Port said with a laugh. “Zimmer did a tremendous job with a collection of Padres misfits.’’

The team finished over .500 at 67-63 and Zimmer would be managing the major league Padres in 1972.

“Playing in Key West was never a dull moment, the fans were just unbelievable,’’ Port said. “It’s sad that the Padres, for logistical reasons, the Class A club was moved to Lodi, California. Key West, I would say I have fond, albeit exciting memories of that place.’’

Travel was difficult.

“The travel was terrible,’’ Port said. “It was four hours to your nearest neighbor in Miami.’’

But because the baseball was so passionately embraced by the fans, it made the experience memorable.

“This was a real taste of baseball as it was played in Havana,’’ Port said, “because that’s what these folks were used to.’’

Key West was a sleepy town then. The fishing was incredible and Port told a story about one of the players, Bob Zamora, who went swimming one day but had to get quickly out of the water because “he was surrounded by barracuda.’’

Zamora would go on to become a legendary high school baseball coach in California at Capistrano Valley, head coach for 41 years.

The Red Sox won 93 games in 2002 with the help of general manager Mike Port's mid-season acquisition of Cliff Floyd. But the team still missed the playoffs. Port returned to his role as vice president of baseball operations when Theo Epstein was named general manager in November 2002. The two men, pictured here, shook hands at a press conference at the .406 Club at Fenway Park. Port remained with the team through 2004 when it won its first World Series in 86 years. (Photo via Boston.com)

“Logan’s Lobster House was just about the only place in town where you could get food after a game,’’ Port explained. “So one night, over the bar they had a big map of the United States and down in the right-hand corner for Key West, they had a little star. In June of that season I was sitting there with Zimmer and he was looking at the map, and he said, ‘That damn Buzzie!’ ’’

Zimmer was referring to Padres president Buzzie Bavasi.

“Do you realize,’’ Zimmer told his young GM, “we can’t get any farther from San Diego than where Buzzie has sent us.’’

Port reacted, asking, “Zim, where did you think we were?’’

“I thought we were on the other side of Texas,’’ Zimmer said.

Gotta love Don Zimmer, who was a baseball genius not a student of geography.

The local sportswriter who covered the Key West Padres lived the Key West lifestyle and would frequent Sloppy Joe’s. The team would have someone keep score at the games and then after the game take the scorebook over to the newspaper, and the game story would be written from the scorebook. The next day the scorebook would be retrieved at the bar at Sloppy Joe’s, where the writer would make a stop. And the same procedure would take place the next game.

It was a much different era.

The team budget was not extravagant. “The owner’s wife kept the game balls in her purse,’’ Port told me, “so they would not be wasted and whenever the umpires needed more baseballs, you had to go over to the box at third base and Winnie would get them out of her purse.’’

The team bus was an experience too.

“It was a 1940-something Greyhound and it had a big wooden steering wheel, and the clubhouse fellow that we had doubled as the bus driver,’’ Port said. “He was a skinny fellow and it was hard for him to turn this wheel so we had a big outfielder from Houston who would sit in that front right-hand seat; and when Neil the bus driver would have to make a difficult turn he would say, “Corner coming up Herman’ and Herman would have to jump up and turn the wheel.

“It’s stuff that is hard to make up,’’ Port said.

Good thing Herm Robinson wasn’t asleep at the wheel on those difficult turns.

Wickers Stadium is now a softball, football complex but the 10-foot high concrete outfield wall is still in existence. It was a small ballpark, but a packed ballpark, an old Works Progress Administration grandstand.

“That was a summer of adventure,’’ Port declared.

UNDATED: Manager Don Zimmer of the San Diego Padres watches the field from the dugout at Wrigley Field during the early 1970s in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Focus On Sport/Getty Images)

Included in the adventure was the Tom Romenesko garbage dumping game. Romenesko, who later became a Padres scout and farm director, giving Bruce Bochy his first managerial job with a young pitching coach named Kevin Towers, was an umpire in the Florida State League and the fans were so upset one game they dumped garbage on the umpires as they left the field. Again, all kinds of garbage.

The local sheriff told the umpires that he could help them out by giving them a 20-minute head start out of town to the first bridge but that was where his authority ended.

One of the umps said, “20 minutes, that ain’t much.’’

The sheriff responded: “You’re right, you now have 19 minutes and 40 seconds.’’

The umps got in their car and got going, not wasting another second.

Then there was another game when the fans started throwing stuff at the umpires, Port ran up to the press box to tell “Frank the PA Announcer’’ that the fans must stop throwing things or the umpires will forfeit the game.

“I no sooner got down to the stands then over the PA system came the words: ‘Fans you can raise all the hell you want, but if you don’t stop throwing stuff the umpires are going to forfeit the game.’

“Well,’’ Port recalled, “as they say, the rocks just got bigger and bigger.’’

Port lived in the clubhouse that summer. “It was Zimmer’s office during game times, my apartment at night,’’ Port said.

“These are things nowadays people would be less inclined to put up with,’’ Port acknowledged.

The overall experience was tremendous, mostly because of the passion of the fans and the chance to work with Zimmer and learn the game.

When the team was about to leave spring training in Leesburg and head south to Key West, a slight gentleman came up to the hotel’s front porch and said, “I’m looking for a Mr. Zimmer?’’

Noted Port: “Mr. Zimmer happened to be on the porch rocking every night smoking a cigar and Zim said, ‘I’m Zimmer, who are you?’

“I’m Richie your bus driver.’’

“You ever drive a bus before?’’

“The guy innocently said, ‘No.’

Zimmer said, “What are you doing here?’’

“I took a test, I have a license.’’

“The next day, while working out at the ballpark, we could hear the bus out in the parking lot, Richie practicing driving the bus,’’ Port recalled. “At one point, we could hear the engine revving and revving and it turns out Richie had gone up against a curb and no one had shown him how to put the bus in reverse.

“When the club left Leesburg, that was the day I was released, I was told that Zimmer went to sleep on the bus and two hours later he woke up.’’

Remember the club was heading to Key West, the Southernmost place in the US. Leesburg is about 45 minutes northeast of Orlando.

“Zimmer woke up to see a sign that said: Jacksonville X number of miles,’’ Port said.

The team was on the way to Georgia.

Zimmer jumped up and hollered, “Stop the bus!’’ He then turned to the players and said, “Anybody here ever drive a bus?’’

“A right-handed pitcher we had, who was from Miami said, ‘I drove a Coke truck one summer in Miami.’

Zimmer said, “Fine, get up here. You are the bus driver.’’

The Key West Padres were off to a wrong-way start but it was the beginning of an unforgettable minor league experience, the one and only year of the Key West Padres. Two years later Jimmy Buffet would come into town with Jerry Jeff Walker and Key West would one day be Margaritaville famous.

“It was a summer of adventures,’’ Port said. “To spend a summer with Don Zimmer learning baseball, trying to meet the needs of the players and still to finish (over .500) that inaugural year with all the things that went on was a summer that was hard to forget.’’

Mike Port’s Baseball Summer of ’69 in Key West, Florida. Jimmy Buffett could have sung a ballad about that team.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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