Mark McGwire named Jupiter’s Roger Dean Stadium 25 years ago
JUPITER – The alligators and snakes that had invaded the land surrounding the training grounds are gone… well, mostly.
Mud fans had to cross on rainy days to buy tickets from the makeshift caravans…this is where a hotel, restaurants and town center are.
What was once tomato and strawberry fields sandwiched between I-95 and Military Trail just north of Donald Ross Road is now a thriving mixed-use community. And what began, the centerpiece of a 2,000+ acre lot that has seen residential areas, a golf club, businesses, schools and a research facility, is a stadium that has opened its gates 25 years ago this spring and had the fortune of luring Major League Baseball’s team with the most passionate fan base in the nation as a spring training tenant.
“It’s been built and they will come,” said Rob Rabenecker, the original Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium general manager. “We were. There was nothing there. There was an entrance from Donald Ross.
“It was a field of dreams coming to life.”
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Snakes on a Diamond
At 1:06 p.m. on February 28, 1998, St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Cliff Politte threw the first pitch to Montreal’s Mark Grudzielanek at Roger Dean Stadium, signaling the start of a new era in Palm Beach County.
A dream that began about a decade before and overcame a mad late rush that saw an occupancy certificate granted days before that first game and the turf laid weeks earlier.
The Cardinals and Expos would continue the county’s spring training tradition with St. Louis replacing the Atlanta Braves, who were lured by Disney, and a state-of-the-art facility replacing the outdated site at 755 Hank Aaron Drive in West Palm Beach. . The Municipal Stadium had seen its best days and had been closed a year earlier before being demolished in 2002.
“There was nothing here,” said Brian Bartow, the Cardinals’ longtime communications director who moved with the team from St. Petersburg to a sleepy town in northeast Palm Beach County.
Nothing, except strawberry and tomato fields and those reptiles that call Florida home. Hidden in the weeds beyond the fences were alligators and snakes among other native creatures.
“If you hit a ball there, you weren’t going to get it,” Bartow said.
Everyone was scrambling to get the facility ready for an elaborate opening day celebration. The stadium hosted a chamber of commerce event about a month before the first game and when the attendees looked around the pitch they saw a huge patch of land surrounded by around 7,000 seats.
At that time, this field of dreams was more like a nightmare to some.
“There was no grass on the pitch,” Rabecker said. “But we weren’t worried. We knew it was going to happen, but they were looking at it and saying, ‘There’s no way you’re playing on this pitch in four weeks. “”
The days leading up to the match were eventful. The hanger wires needed to be secured, the concession stands weren’t finished, the souvenir shop wasn’t set up, the programs needed to be stuffed.
“There was a lot of work to do,” Rabecker said. “Things you don’t feel comfortable doing the night before.”
Mark McGwire names the stadium
Rebenecker’s staff succeeded with the help of both teams who provided him with all the support he needed.
“The teams gave me everything I needed to do the job,” he said.
“They gave me money to promote. They gave me money to advertise. They gave me money to hire people. We hired a lot more staff from game than we needed.”
That first game began with a ribbon cutting attended by then National League President Leonard Coleman, former Brooklyn Dodgers great Joe Black, Hall of Famer Frank Robinson and Cardinals legend Ozzie Smith, among others.
A helicopter flew into the ball for the ceremonial first pitch, which was thrown by Roger Dean’s son-in-law, Park Miller. Samantha Marro of Palm Beach Gardens sang the Canadian and American national anthems.
A seat in the party deck with an all-you-can-eat buffet is $25. Today, that seat costs $53. Box seats have gone from $15 to $34.
The stadium’s biggest draw at the time was Cardinals hitter Mark McGwire, who was about to start a season in which he would hit a record 70 homers. McGwire went into the first innings in RDS history with a first-inning single and three innings later hit the stadium’s first home run, reaching the Expos offices which were more than 400 feet from home plate. beyond the left field fence.
This bullet was given to Rabecker who stuck it in a drawer in his desk. Later that year, after McGwire had become the biggest name in the sport, Rabenecker informed the Cardinals that he had McGwire’s first home run of the historic season. The ball was sent to St. Louis and is now believed to be displayed in the team’s hall of fame.
Among those who witnessed the first of McGwire’s many home runs at Roger Dean Stadium were the owners of 90 season ticket accounts who, 25 years later, keep coming back spring after spring. They will all receive a pin, mug and special ticket for their 25 years of service and will have the opportunity to be recognized before the first pitch of any of the four games between the Cardinals and the Miami Marlins. The Marlins replaced the Expos as the stadium’s tenant in 2003.
Ron and Tina Lantz of North Palm Beach were recognized on Tuesday for their 25 years as season ticket holders. Ron grew up in St. Louis and remembers navigating the plywood that covered the mud so fans could reach the trailers to buy their tickets without having to invest in new shoes.
“The judges know I’m not practicing in March,” said Ron, an attorney.
“We raised our children here,” Tina said. “They came as babies, then they brought their friends, then we started giving them the tickets when they were big enough.”
Mark and Cheryl Melville have been from St. Louis since they bought a pair of season tickets 25 years ago.
“There was a lot of excitement,” Mark said of the opening of a brand new stadium in a part of the state that Cardinals fans knew little about.
Cheryl cherished the intimate and personal feel of the stadium.
“The closeness we had with the players,” she said. “My son would take a baseball and throw it in the field and they would sign it for him.”
Their son not only shared the same first name as his favorite player, Mark McGwire, but the same birthday. One day, McGwire signed a jersey for young Mark and punctuated it with “10/1/97”.
“Mark McGwire was one of our favorite players because he took the time to sign everything,” Mark Melville said.
On Saturday, Patty Dean and her husband, Park Miller, who threw that first pitch 25 years ago, will receive a memorial home plate and Roger Dean Chevrolet will be honored for holding the naming rights from the start, which the current general manager Mike Bauer says it’s “unheard of in today’s era”.
Cardinals fans flock to Jupiter
After moving their spring training site 22 times beginning in 1901, the Cardinals settled in St. Petersburg in 1946. Rick Hummel, the longtime St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer/columnist who covered over 40 spring training, thought Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt was eager to leave the area when Tampa Bay got a franchise.
“I think Bill DeWitt was worried, perhaps mistakenly, if the Cardinals stayed in St. Pete, the Rays would take some of the thunder away from the Cardinals,” Hummel said. “That wasn’t the case at all. But he didn’t know that.”
Hummel, a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, was not so eager at DeWitt to spend his springs on the East Coast.
“I went kicking and screaming,” Hummel said. “I loved St. Pete. I didn’t think I would like it but I love it a lot. The fans, it hasn’t changed them. They’re all over Florida. They’re coming.”
More like herd…en masse. Rabenecker recognizes how fortunate Roger Dean Stadium has been as the Cardinals’ spring home for 25 years. Catch any game at Roger Dean, whether it was when the Expos shared the facility or the Marlins moved their spring home to what is now just 82 miles from their home park, and you will be engulfed in a sea of cardinal red. Jerseys with the iconic bird on a bat on the front and many with names like Musial, Brock, Gibson, Smith, Pujols, Rolen, Wainwright or Molina on the back.
“The Cardinals made me a marketing genius.” said Rabecker. “All I had to do was make sure I had enough supplies.”
And food and beer and programs and – oh yeah – turf on Day 1. But since then it all went downhill from there.