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Spring training memories: Nothing but pleasant recollections of White Sox at Payne

SARASOTA — The year is 1960. A rising pitcher in the Chicago White Sox organization pulls up to the player's parking lot at Payne Park. Gary Peters has just driven up from Miami after playing winter ball in Venezuela.

He looks behind him and sees a good friend, teammate Billy Goodman. Then he sees another guy. Ted Williams.

"He gave me a fishing reel and some bass that they had caught for dinner," Peters said recently of a 50-year-old memory. Peters is sitting on a concrete bench in front of a tennis facility on a rainy morning.

The tennis courts, constructed in July 1994, are part of a 29-acre public complex that "ushered in a new phase of Payne Park." That's one way to look it at it. Old-timers who cherish baseball can't help but feel a nostalgic twinge of sadness. There's 65 years of baseball history buried beneath these tennis courts. All that's left is a few pictures in the tennis pro shop, which used to be the clubhouse.

"That was my roommate, Joe Horlen," Peters said, looking at one of the pictures.

Peters has more than a decade's worth of memories here, until he was traded to the Boston Red Sox in 1970. His buddies would catch fish and throw them into the swimming pool of the Sarasota Terrace Hotel, only a couple hundred feet from the ballpark.

Manager Al Lopez made the hotel bar off limits to the players, so he and the coaches could have the place to themselves. Peters could gas up at a local Texaco station owned by Verne Richards, a former catcher with the Red Sox. Players would look out toward the ballpark chain-link fences and see people in lawn chairs watching exhibition games. They all lived in a trailer park, just outside the stadium.

Peters struck up a pretty good friendship with Williams, who trained in Winter Haven with the Red Sox. "He was one of my heroes," Peters said. "He was kind of a gruff guy but he was a sportsman. He liked to fish, but it was no fool-around fishing. It was business fishing."

Peters liked Sarasota, but he was from Western Pennsylvania and wanted to go back that first winter. His wife Jean said, "No let's stay down here this winter and stay out of the snow."

Peters smiles, recalling the conversation. "That's turned into 50 winters now," he said. "We never left."

Read George Diaz's blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/enfuego or e-mail him at gdiaz@orlandosentinel.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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