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Bisons to Winter Haven: Adios!

Winter Haven, FLFor the Buffalo Bisons, the annual sojourn to Florida for spring training comes to an end this weekend, as the Cleveland Indians bid goodbye to Chain of Lakes Park, which has served as their headquarters since 1993, for the very last time. The organization will move to a new spring training venue, now under construction in Goodyear, Arizona, in time for the 2009 season.

The parent Cleveland Indians played their final game here on Thursday, March 27, against the Tampa Bay Rays. The Bisons, meanwhile, host Toledo this Saturday before breaking camp and heading to Buffalo to get themselves settled. The team then heads to Norfolk, where they open the regular season on April 3.

Cleveland wound up in Winter Haven quite by happenstance. The team had planned to establish their spring training base farther south, in Homestead, Florida, and in fact had designed and erected a state-of-the-art spring training facility and new ballpark.

Hurricane Andrew, a category five storm which hit south Florida in September, 1992, changed all that. The storm devastated the complex and forced the Indians to change their plans quickly. The Boston Red Sox had just vacated the Winter Haven facility, and the Indians seized the opportunity to move in. The Homestead complex was rebuilt, but the Indians never left Winter Haven.

Some players grouse that it’s high time for the team to make the move, with most MLB teams having built or building gleaming new camps in Florida and in Arizona. For the fans, however, Chain of Lakes Park still retains a mid-1960s charm which makes it one of Florida’s classic venues. One could say that only Holman Stadium in Dodgertown comes close to so pure a baseball experience, and the Dodgers are also leaving for Arizona, after decades playing in Vero Beach.

Despite the fuzzy feelings, Jim Rosenhaus, former voice of the Bisons and now part of the Indians broadcast crew, insists that it is time to move on. “The Indians are excited about having themselves built exactly the type of facility they want,” he says. “No slam against the people here in Winter Haven, but it is an older facility…the Red Sox left here in ’92 for the same reasons the Indians are leaving now. They’re older buildings, they’ve struggled to get games in on the main field on days after it rained during the night. That’s not where you want to be when you’re trying to prepare a team and players.”

Curiously, Chain of Lakes Park is the only spring training facility that is not used by a minor league team during the regular season. Nor are there plans to change that, as developers are eyeing the property for residential and commercial development.

Bisons Manager Torey Lovullo spent many years training as a player and a manager at Winter Haven, and admits that the departure will be bittersweet. “We’re all a little nostalgic, even though the facility is not up to par. We’re going to miss it. Personally, I spent a number of seasons down here…I have a lot of friends down in this area and a lot of sights to see and visit that are going to be missed. But time to turn the page and move on to a new facility in a town that’s really gonna love us.”

The Bisons affiliation contract with Cleveland expires after this year. With rumors swirling that this will be the last year of the partnership between the Indians and the Bisons, either way Buffalo players will be taking one long last look at their digs in Winter Haven before they depart.

Will the two teams be parting company for new partners next season? “If it does happen, I’ll sure be bummed,” replies Rosenhaus, who has climbed the ladder in the Tribe’s organization, beginning with the single-A Kinston Indians before moving on to Buffalo and then to the big club.

Lovullo adds, “We’ve been hearing the rumblings, and we hear it’s a possibility, and if it does come to that point there’s a certain sadness that we’ll all be missing Buffalo for a lot of different reasons. They’ve established such a great rapport with the Indians going back to 1995. But until that time we get the final word that it’s going to be a go, we’re going to make the assumption that we’re coming back to Buffalo.”

As for the 2008 Bisons season, Lovullo is brimming with optimism about the Herd’s chances, and it looks like the AAA roster will be stocked again with blue chip prospects, including star pitchers such as Adam Miller, Aaron Laffey and Jeremy Sowers in the starting rotation. Says Lovullo, “You know that’s the name of the game…we need to reload the Indians roster and a lot of guys are gonna fall back onto our team, so initially, we’re going to have a strong team, a well rounded one.”

So while the Bisons say adios to Winter Haven, Florida, fans here in Buffalo get to welcome their team to Dunn Tire Park starting with the home opener on Friday, April 11.

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