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To Snowbirds, the weather in Florida is perpetual summer, so it was strange indeed in late February to hear the locals talking about the arrival of spring. Where the weather is nearly always balmy, how does one know when one season leaves off and another begins? And anyway, who cares.


There are no doubt many ways in which Floridians recognize the arrival of spring, but surely none is more certain nor more satisfying than the arrival of spring training. "Baseball is back," shouted the headlines and that was surely important in the Sunshine State, for of the 26 teams in the American/National Leagues, eighteen of them prepared for the season in Florida. The remainder sought Arizona's sun.

1992 Florida Baseball Grapefruit League Spring Training Locations

There was a buzz of excitement among the mostly Canadians who seated themselves expectantly in the stands to watch the first day of spring training. On that February 21st the first to arrive following their medicals were the pitchers and catchers. They hit the field for warmups and workouts, gingerly trying out the million-dollar arms in the cool morning air.

The position players arrived a few days later. Team workouts usually started at 9:30 a.m. and the bleachers were full within a short time. We watched and wondered whether this year's team would be the team to do it, that is, win something. The players, all 49 of them, lined up as if preparing for a race. At right angles to the 'racers,' another line comprised reporters and photographers with cameras on tripods poised for that perfect picture. Suddenly the players, displaying various degrees of enthusiasm, began to hop on one foot for about 25 yards and then turned about and hopped back. Next they leapfrogged the same distance, turned about and jumped back. As interest began to wane they dropped to the ground and for several minutes did pushups and sit-ups. This activity quickly ended and all just sat or lay on the ground and talked.

Suddenly they jumped up and separated into groups. Pitchers gathered around the mound while five infielders clustered about second base. Others milled around first base and remaining players disappeared. Each pitcher on the mound took turns pivoting and firing to second base, simulating a throw-out of a base runners coming from first. This seemed to last forever. Finally, the bored crowd came to life when the batters cage was wheeled out. Two pitchers barricaded themselves behind the screen and fired balls at the big hitters like newly acquired Dave Winfield who tried to belt balls over the fence, but failed to do so. On another field a batter hit flyballs to fielders and scorchers to infielders. The workout appeared kind of off-the-cuff and did not seem to be that well organized. Little wonder the players wanted the games to begin. It was nevertheless spring training and it was great to be there.

First Day of Spring Training in what was to be a BIG year for the Blue Jays
photo by
G. Wilson

This year provided some interesting sidelights associated with the beginning of the season. A surprise tornado struck on February 25th and swirled through Plant City, Lakeland and Baseball City leaving a swath of destruction in its wake. The Cincinnati Reds trained in Plant City and the furious funnel rotated across two practice fields picking up batting cages, tarps and anything else not tied down, scattering them over a wide area. The players had just wrapped up a practice and good thing too, for the dugouts were decimated and flooded with a torrential downpour. We were told tornados were not unusual in Florida at this time of year. Fortunately, we were not affected by any.

The Reds were famous - perhaps infamous is more appropriate - for more than the tornado. On their playing field not far from their clubhouse, there was a small, fenced-in pond with an occupant that attracted alot of attention. Swimming about in the water was a seven-foot long alligator. Because it was such a sensation, it became a hazard and large signs warned watchers "Caution Gator." The players were proud of their reptile resident and took great delight along with the fans in watching it as it slithered out of the water to sun itself on the grass.


If Al, that's the name they gave the gator, was at all disturbed by the curious crowds that watched his every move, he never showed it. The lizard just lazed in the noon day sun. Despite his somnolent nature, Reds' officials, who feared lawsuits, knew Al would just as soon bite as bask. They were always fearful some fan might rile the reptile or worse still, some fool might try to flag a foul, for a few long, lazy, errant balls ended up in Al's pool. Others poked fun at this fear saying Al wanted only to be left alone to lounge languidly in the Florida sun. He was oblivious of the fuss his presence caused fans and club officials whose job, they regularly warned, was not to worry about Al and his appetite.

Enter the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission whose job it was to worry and be wary - of alligators. They said the gator must go by which they meant gone as in perished. If you are an alligator in the Sunshine State and have been named a nuisance, your days are numbered. It was claimed such creatures had lost their fear of humans by displaying aggressive behaviour. But no one accused Al of being a rapacious reptile. To a man the Reds' players all testified to Al's timidness. No matter, Al's fate was fixed once the Commission received the permit to carry out his capture. Despite their earlier support for the scaley creature, the team took Al's impending fate well. Resigned to his demise, their only query was an inquiry, "What about wallets?" Others said the boys had blown it, for the monster would have made a real mascot with a great motto, "We beat 'em or eat 'em."

Animal rights' types argued for Al's removal to a safe base where his fans could watch and not worry. The Commission's comment was that they did not relocate reptiles deemed a nuisance. But then having assured Al's single-minded supporters there was no need to hurry, they raced to remove the reptile. Their beeline to bury the brute was unseemly some said, but sensing public support to preserve the predator was building, they decided to get rid of the headache in a hurry.

On 20 March 1992 professional alligator trappers entered the pond and pacified Al permanently. Al's inning was over. He'd struck out. All that remained was to drain his pond and pick up the balls the gator had guarded so well for so long. Play ball.

First Grapefruit League Game 1992
photo by
G. Wilson

The Blue Jays' first game was against the Philadelphia Phillies which they lost. Some said it augured ill for the season. When asked what the future held, the great coach for the Detroit Tigers, Sparky Anderson, said Toronto should be favoured in the East. "They are," one reporter said, "bloated with pitchers." Sparky thought it was the most balanced team in baseball, but added, "A lot of teams look good on paper."

Cito Gaston
Manager, Blue Jays
photo by
G. Wilson

Cito wouldn't say. "We got a lot of criticism for not going all the way last year and I was as upset as anyone. However, I thought we did a good job considering the injuries to key players. Without injuries this season, if we don't make it all the way, I'll be disappointed once more." There was a chorus of "Here we go again."

Not really, for 1992 turned out to be a joyous year for the Jays. They defeated the Atlanta Braves for the World Series, a game given them by newly acquired Dave Winfield who drove in the winning run with a double. The Jays' first World Series win was followed in 1993 with a second World Series win, this time accomplished dramatically by Joe Carter's home run in the ninth inning.

Balcony Bill
15th Floor
Landmark Towers
Overlooking Gulf of Mexico
White Sails in the Sunset
photo by
G. Wilson

Sea, Sand and Seats Awaiting the Sun Worshippers
photo by
G. Wilson

Beach Seats Awaiting the Wilsons
photo by
G. Wilson

The thoughts of Youth are long, long thoughts.
photo by
G Wilson

I must go down to sea again,
To the lonely sea and the sky.
And all I ask is a tall ship,
And a star to steer her by.
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song
And the white sails shaking.
And the grey mist on the sea's face
And the grey dawn breaking.

[Sea Fever
by John Masefield]

Geri Feeding Birds along Beach
photo by
B. Wilson

Florida is fringed with fine, white, sandy beaches that mark the miles of the Sunshine State's tropical coastline. Each morning come heat, hail or highwater, these beaches are haunted by a host of happy wanderers stalking the shores, intent not on the sun nor the sea but on something else - shells. Sharing the fame of Florida's sun and the sand are billions of shells wafted ashore by the lapping waves of the Gulf or the Atlantic. If by chance an ill wind results in a storm, so much the better for choicer shells are often churned up from the depths.

However they get there, they lie waiting to be discovered by early-birds who eagerly seek them. With head bent and eyes intent, the shell people prowl the sandy shores searching for the the largest, the brightest, the rarest species. Each hunter is determined on finding perfect specimens to grace that bowl back home.

Prominent among the masses of shells carpeting the sandy coastline is the scallop shell. Its form is famous and familiar to most of us for a variety or reasons. The large, yellow, stylized shell can be found in almost any country of the world, the familiar shape the trademark for, of all things, an oil company. It is the well-known marker of the maker of gasoline - Shell Oil.

Shell Oil meant a lot to the Wilsons, for that company provided sustenance for the family for years. On his rounds on his bicycle one day in the Dirty Thirties, Dad heard that Shell Oil was advertising for workers at one of the new service stations just opened. He was at the time a credit man for London Life Insurance, a job that involved collecting monthly premiums from policy holders, most of whom paid their premiums weekly or bi-weekly. On occasion if an insured could not manage the payment for that week, he said he sometimes paid the premium out of his own pocket to ensure the coverage and his collections continued. The satisfied customer paid him back when he could.

That fateful day he went directly to the station to apply. Asked when he could start, he said immediately. The manager gave him a broom and told him to sweep the platform, keep the station clean and serve gas to satisfied customers. He was overjoyed for the pay was better and the job augured well for promotion. He took off his suit coat and began to sweep. Five years later a new station when a station was opened he was appointed its manager.

Several years later on his way home one day, he noticed a sign advertising a run-down, no-name service station for sale. Despite being told by family and friends he was crazy, he begged/borrowed the money to buy it. He informed Shell that he would sell their products and thereby entered into a long and profitable relationship with that company. They paid a generous - for the time - monthly payment for the privilege of selling Shell products in his station. He used to comment on how enjoyable it was to sit by the front door and have the postman hand him a cheque each month.

During the war a veteran who had lost an arm applied for a job at his station. Dad hired him and attracted many customers because of it. He designed a card bearing numbers similar to those on the gas pump which he handed out to customers. After gassing up, the numbers on the pump and those on the card were compared. Similiarities resulted in a prize. The concept proved popular and he enjoyed a good increase in business. At that time full service was really full service. The customer received a friendly greeting following which their windshield was cleaned, their oil was checked, the car was gassed and a sucker was given to any child in the car - all for 30 cents an imperial gallon.

I wrote Shell and inquired if they had any record of his long association with them. They said unfortunately they had kept no such records, but appreciated knowing about his service and association with Shell and would keep the information on file.

Shells Galore

The predecessor company of Shell Oil was Shell Transport and Trading Company. It catered to the needs of ships and sailors. The latter often returned from their travels with exotic shells which they gave to the company owner, an Englishman named Marcus Samuel. Over time Samuel developed an interest in and love of shells and he turned this fascination into a lucrative business. He purchased shells from around the world which were then mounted and sold to wealthy collectors. The company did well and after Samuel's death and the liquidation of his estate, there was sufficient money to purchase an oil tanker. In honour of the company's shell-loving founder, it was named Murex, the scientific name of a group of shells. Other ships were acquired and given different scientific names of shells. The beautifully semetrical scallop became the Shell Oil company symbol.

The scallop shell also has a military significance. It was given to knights who participated in the Crusades. Volunteers from across Europe descended on the Near East to fight the Saracens. While there they strolled along the Mediterranean Sea where they discovered the scallop shell. They were fascinated by the form and colours of these unusual shells and collected these novelties as cherished momentoes of their service to the Saviour. When medals were struck to commemorate participation in the Holy War, the scallop found an important place in their design. Many family credits of English nobility, including that of Winston Churchill, contain scallop shells to indicate their ancestors went in search of the Holy Grail.

This shows a coat of arms
That of the bearer's line
Someone in former times
Has been to Santiago's shrine.

Night of Knights

"Who was that Knight I saw you with this morning?"
photo by
B. Wilson

Florida's Pelicans
photo by

Beach Bumming Bird
photo by
G. Wilson


Copyright © 2008 W. R. Wilson