A Tale of Two Sports
One sport is played on a diamond and another on a court. One has been a staple of Southwest Florida for nearly 90 years, returning every spring, bringing legends along with journeymen performers. The other sport has been played in the area just as long, but only a couple of times have its legends competed on our courts.
Major League Baseball spring training has been a fixture of the local sports scene since before the Tamiami Trail was completed in 1928, connecting Fort Myers by highway with Tampa and Miami.
Davis Cup tennis was played at the Sanibel Harbour Marriott Resort & Spa in the late 20th century and featured players as iconic in their sport as their baseball counterparts are in theirs. The Davis Cup is the premier international team event in men’s tennis played annually at venues around the world.
Baseball returns to Lee and Charlotte counties every February with the Minnesota Twins at CenturyLink Sports Complex, the Boston Red Sox at JetBlue Park and the Tampa Bay Rays at Charlotte Sports Park. Top-level professional tennis has not returned to Southwest Florida.
SPRING TRAINING HISTORY
Southwest Florida’s connection to big-league baseball goes back to a time before television, night games and the Internet.
In 1925, the Philadelphia Athletics became the first team to call Fort Myers its spring training home when its members started working out and playing games at Terry Park just east of downtown.
The team was destined within a few years to become one of the greatest ever, winning the American League pennant in 1929, 1930 and 1931. The A’s won the World Series in 1929 and 1930.
It also began a spring training tradition unmatched by any other city in either Florida or Arizona, the only two states that now serve as spring training locales.
Four other franchises have trained in Fort Myers and gone on to win a World Series: 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates; 1985 Kansas City Royals; 1991 Minnesota Twins; 2004, 2007 and 2013 Boston Red Sox. No other spring training city can boast as many franchises that trained in their ballparks and went on to win the championship.
Some of the greatest names in baseball history have called Fort Myers their spring home, from Lefty Grove to Bob Feller to Roberto Clemente to George Brett to David Ortiz.
DAVIS CUP LEGENDS
John McEnroe and Andre Agassi were so famous that even nontennis fans likely knew their names when they came to what was then called Sonesta Sanibel Harbour Resort in spring 1992 to play a Davis Cup event. Those events are known in Davis Cup parlance as ties.
McEnroe and Agassi played for a powerhouse U.S. team in a quarterfinal match against a country that doesn’t exist anymore—Czechoslovakia. The country dissolved itself in 1993 and is now two countries: Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
At stake in the tie was a spot in the tournament semi-finals, then on to the world championship.
McEnroe, then 33, was the team captain. At the time his resume included four U.S. Open titles and three Wimbledon
No other spring training city can boast as many franchises that trained in their ballparks and went on to win the championship.
titles. He had been the world’s No. 1 player from 1981 to 1984.
Agassi was 21 and was, he said at the time, “jazzed” to play in the tournament. As he told reporters then, “Davis Cup. There’s nothing quite like it. The grand slams and Davis Cup. I think that’s where you make your game.”
He helped make his own game that year at the resort by the causeway leading to Sanibel Island. The event was held in the resort’s 5,500-seat tennis stadium, which was packed or nearly packed for all three days of the competition.
The U.S. team included another superstar, Pete Sampras, who was then ranked No. 4 in the world. Teammate Rick Leach was No. 7.
The Czech team wasn’t filled with slouches. Hardly. Petr Korda was No. 10 in the world and Karel Novacek was No. 12.
McEnroe, though, predicted the U.S. would sweep the Czechs 5-0. It started off that way on Friday, March 27, 1992, when Agassi beat Korda, and Sampras beat Novacek. Both matches were won in straight sets. The Czechs bounced back the next day by winning the doubles match and started Sunday with Korda upsetting Sampras 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 6-3.
The event was tied 2-2, setting up a showdown between Agassi and Novacek. The American won 7-6, 6-0, 6-0, giving the home team a 3-2 victory.
The Americans then went on to beat Sweden in the semifinals and Switzerland in the finals.
Once, legends in their prime graced the courts right by the Sanibel Causeway.
Notable moments in Fort Myers baseball history: Left, Ty Cobb, Thomas Edison and Connie Mack, the legendary Philadelphia A’s manager, at Terry Park; middle, Mack with Edison at bat; right, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig on a visit to Terry Park in 1929.