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Home Away From Home

The Mets signed their first amateur free agent on July 20, 1961, unofficially making Paul Blair the first Met, though he would never play a game in the orange and blue. On April 27, 1961, just a few months before the Mets made this seminal claim, the faraway city of Port St. Lucie came into existence. A growing community that expanded rapidly after the General Development Corporation installed a bridge over the St. Lucie River in 1959, the city became official on that date with the passage of Florida House Bill no. 952. Today, Port St. Lucie stands as the eighth largest city in Florida, outpacing even Fort Lauderdale.

Despite the proximity of their birthdates, it wouldn’t be until 1988 that Port St. Lucie would come together with the Mets to form a partnership that is now over thirty-years old. From their inception until 1987, the Mets spring training home had been St. Petersburg, where they played at Al Lang stadium. The move to Port St. Lucie was the result of a well-orchestrated plan by community leaders to expand the already rapidly growing region.

In 1984, residents of Port St. Lucie enjoined their leaders with the specific task of luring a major league team to the area for spring training. They passed a 2% tax on hotel rooms and home rentals of less than six months, with the money to be earmarked for the construction of a stadium. While the town wooed the Royals, Reds, Rangers and Mets, the Thomas J. White Development Corp. offered up the needed land to the city in exchange for the contract to build what would ultimately be called Thomas J. White Field and the adjoining baseball complex. The $11.2 million, 7000-seat stadium still serves as the spring training home of the Mets today, though it has undergone a few name changes, including Tradition Field, Digital Domain Park and its current First Data Field.

The agreement to move to Port St. Lucie was finalized in June of 1986, just a few months before the Mets secured their second World Championship. The deal was aided in no small measure by Port St. Lucie’s proximity to the Hobe Sound home of Mets Chairman Nelson Doubleday. It would later turn out that Doubleday and President Fred Wilpon had an even more ambitious plan than the move across the state for spring training. In September of 1987, the Mets announced that they had purchased the Daytona Beach Admirals of the Florida State League. They moved the team to Port St. Lucie and fitted them with the parent club name.

This led to the realignment of the FSL for the 1988 season. The three divisions changed from the Central, North and South to the Central, East and West. The Admirals had previously played in the Central Division but the Mets were to play in the East, pitting them as division rivals to the Fort Lauderdale Yankees.

In October of 1987, the Mets tapped 26-year-old Brooklyn-native Andy Kaplan as general manager. Kaplan was a wunderkind who had already spent six years in the Charlotte Orioles organization. He oversaw the Port St. Lucie Mets for just a few months before he was promoted in May to the major league team as the Mets executive in charge of all advertising sales. It was a dream come true to the young Mets fan, but tragedy struck just a month later when he died from a brain hemorrhage.

The inaugural staff also included pitching coach Bob Apodaca and manager Clint Hurdle. Apodaca was a promising reliever who made his major league debut with the Mets in 1973. His lone appearance that year wasn’t memorable, surrendering two walks to the only two batters he faced. But over the next four seasons he started to build a solid resume, crafting a 2.84 ERA in 361.1 innings pitched. Two years of pain and stints on the disabled list revealed Apodaca to have over forty bone chips in his elbow. Doctors operated but at 30 years of age, his playing career was finished. He stayed in the Mets organization, first as part of the coaching staff in Columbia, SC, before joining Port St. Lucie.

Hurdle was a ten-year veteran who had a couple of strong seasons in 1978 and 1980, playing for Kansas City. Originally acquired by the Mets in 1983, he was with the organization until 1986, when the Cardinals acquired him in the rule 5 draft. Released after that single season he resigned with the Mets in 1987, appearing in three games but spending the bulk of the year with the AAA Tidewater Tides. He was widely recognized within the organization as a leader and when the opportunity to manage the Port St. Lucie Mets came up, he announced his retirement as a player and happily accepted the next phase of his baseball career. He would spend six years in the Mets minor league organization, making it all the way to Tidewater and Norfolk, the Mets two AAA franchises during his tenure. He made it to the big leagues as the manager of the Colorado Rockies in 2002 and for the last eight seasons has steered the Pittsburgh Pirates.

That first season for the Port St. Lucie Mets was a successful one. The alignment shift that came with the arrival of the Mets also called for a new playoff structure. The season was to be split, with separate champions named for the first and second half. The division winner and one wild card team were named for each half, creating a three tiered playoff, with the potential of up to eight teams. The Mets struggled early, sitting in last place as late as July 29th. But, they used the split season format to their advantage with a strong second-half, winning 25 of their last 37 games to capture the second-half crown.

They rolled through the postseason, defeating the Lakeland Tigers two games to one in the quarterfinals, and then sweeping the Tampa Tarpons in the semifinals and the Osceola Astros in the finals. They captured the 1988 Florida State League flag in their first year of existence. They have repeated the feat four times since, in 1996, 1998, 2003 and 2006.

More important than the championship accolades, at least to the people of Port St. Lucie, was that the plan worked. When the city created the idea to lure a major league team to the area, they had a population of roughly 20,000 souls. The 2016 population estimate stands at just a little over 185,000. Also in 2016, the New York Mets renewed their contract with the city of Port St. Lucie for another 25 years, making it their spring training home until 2042. A perfect example of just how mutually beneficial the two parties are for each other can be seen in the details of the agreement. In exchange for the county taking a $55 million loan to renovate the field, the Mets increased their contributions to the county from roughly $750,000 a year to almost $2 million. They also absorbed $5.4 million of the county’s debt and agreed to spend nearly one-half million dollars a year to promote Port St. Lucie tourism in the New York area.

The 2018 season was a disappointing one for the Port St. Lucie Mets. They finished 54-76, the season a literal washout when six games in the final week were cancelled due to weather. There was some excitement to be found in the eighty-five games in which Andres Gimenez made an appearance. The Mets number one prospect, Giminez hit .282 with twenty doubles, four triples and six home runs in his half season stint before being promoted to Binghamton in July. They also witnessed ten of the final professional games in the career of David Wright. Such is life in a minor league town, with the rapid comings and goings of youth on the rise and age on the decline. The people of Port St. Lucie, the Mets’ home away from home, have seen a lot in the thirty years since the team put down roots, and over the next two-and-half decades they are destined to see much more.

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