Baseball and bass fishing

Florida is known for its excellent bass fishing, and January and February are typically the months when the giant Florida Strain bass begin to spawn.

All the action makes this an exciting time for anglers and angling fans, and many of those eyes are on the Bass Pro Shops Southern Open No. 1 here in Leesburg, Fla. this week.

Of course, Florida is known for another sport that also swings to life this time of year. I’m talking about baseball, and the Sunshine State is home to 15 different Major League Baseball teams who call either central or south Florida home during spring training each year.

Leesburg is not a spring training city, but it once was. And the sport of bass fishing has met the national pastime in a unique way during this Southern Open.

Pat Thomas Stadium sits directly across an inlet of Lake Harris, which is site of the Southern Open weigh-in. Fishing fans can cast a glance only a couple hundred yards across the lily-pads and open water to clearly see the ballpark. The stadium was built in 1937 as part of a Works Progress Administration project, and in the mid to late-1940s, the Philadelphia Phillies were lured to the area to train for the regular season.

The Phillies used the stadium (formerly called the Ballpark at Venetian Gardens) as their spring training home until 1968. Given that timeframe, that means some fantastic players once trained there. They likely included MLB Hall of Famers Richie Ashburn, Robin Roberts, Ferguson Jenkins, and Jim Bunning, as well as stars such as Dick Allen, Frank Thomas, and others.

Through the decades, the field also has served as a minor league baseball home to teams including the Braves, A’s, Pirates, Dodgers, and Orioles. The great website www.ballparkdigest.com lists Hall of Famers Hank Aaron, Phil Niekro, Rollie Fingers, and Johnny Bench among players who once roamed the ballpark during either minor league matchups or exhibitions.

After the Big Leaguers left in the early 70s, the old stadium was used primarily for local high school and junior college games. Eventually, the facility was spruced up, though the charm of the 1930s ballpark remains. The building was renamed Pat Thomas Stadium in honor of the former Leesburg City Manager in 1972, who was a big supporter of local baseball. And in 2003, the field itself was named Buddy Lowe Field in honor of the longtime baseball coach at Leesburg High School coach.

Today, Pat Thomas Stadium is home to the Leesburg Lightning of the Florida Collegiate Summer League.  The Lightning are a community sponsored organization run by a volunteer board. They have a great website and media guide at www.leesburglightning.com, if you’re learning a bit more history about that team and its ballpark.

So if baseball and bass fishing are your thing, Leesburg is the right place for you, whether you’re a visitor or a local. Consider swinging by Pat Thomas Stadium before heading over to the Bass Pro Shops Southern Open No. 1 weigh-in on Friday. Take a look around at some history, and then come watch the anglers hoist what could be some historical catches on the B.A.S.S. stage right across the harbor.

Both are Florida at her finest.