The smack of wood on rawhide. Sunflower seed husks in the dirt. The quiet excitement of the crowd when the home team hits a fly ball deep, as if their sudden attentiveness could will it over the fence. A pack of children running the bases between innings. Players taking a break from the dugout to help sell raffle tickets to attendees sitting in the grandstand.
Florida Collegiate Summer League baseball is back in Central Florida.
The league’s 11th season opened June 3 at Sanford Memorial Stadium. There the league’s two founding teams from 2004, the Winter Park Diamond Dawgs and the Sanford River Rats, reignited a longtime rivalry.
“It makes my summers I'll tell you that,” said Sanford head coach Ken Kelly. “The kids keep me young.”
River Rats got down early in the game on their home turf, trailing 3-0 heading into the bottom of the third. But they battled back with a huge seventh, scoring seven runs. That, combined with a shutdown performance from the bullpen, brought them a blowout comeback win on opening night, 10-4.
“When you're playing the defending champions, it's opening night, you got a good crowd and a new group of kids ... I think it's got an extra tint to it,” Kelly said. “You just want the guys to go out and play well and we did after the first couple innings today.”
Sanford got a big game from shortstop Tyler Palmer from Thomas College. Palmer, who had perhaps the most remarkable offensive season in league history last year, was right in the thick of things again for Sanford, reaching base four times and tallying two RBI and a stolen base.
“He's the best player in the league, bar none,” Kelly said.
The only time all night Palmer was retired was on the long fly ball to the warning track that the crowd couldn’t quite will over the fence.
“Playing here with the Sanford River Rats and being back in my hometown from last year, it's really been a great experience, and hopefully this year will be another great experience,” Palmer said.
Palmer won the league MVP award last season. He broke the home run record, led the league in steals and RBI, and was just .004 percentage points on his batting average short of winning the triple crown.
“I expect to see him in the major leagues in three years; he's that kind of player,” Kelly said. “He's one of the guys that it's just a pleasure to coach.”
Meanwhile, Winter Park is working to defend its title from a season ago, when the Dawgs won both the regular season and postseason championships. The Dawgs have eight returning players on their roster and high hopes of repeating their success.
Opening night was just the first of three games to be played between the Rats and the Dawgs to start the season. After starting the season with a loss, Winter Park had a quick turn around to get their revenge.
The Dawgs won games two and three of the series, both by just one run. In game two Nate Ferrell homered for the Dawgs, and in game three Kyle Cavanaugh scored on his own single thanks to a three-base error by the Sanford centerfielder.
After winning the series against Sanford, Winter Park would again win two out of three against its next opponent, the College Park Freedom. Ferrell would continue to stay hot for the Dawgs, tallying three hits in game one of the series. He currently leads Winter Park in batting with a .381 average.
Up next for the Dawgs is a three-game series with the Deland Suns, who are off to a 1-4 start on the season. The series will take place from June 10 to 12. Games one and three will be played in Deland, with game two n June 11 being hosted by the Dawgs at Alfond Stadium in Winter Park. All games start at 7 p.m.