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Spring training memories: Chain O'Lakes is a place for Easter eggs and dreams of opportunity

WINTER HAVEN — Returning to Chain O' Lakes Park for the first time since 1981, Dick Drago conjures up images of baseball greats, a fortuitous trade, and his 4-year-old daughter Dina looking for Easter eggs.

"Our families would have Easter egg hunts here," he said, pointing to an area by Lake Lulu. "Things were a little more laid-back…"

Upon joining the Boston Red Sox after a trade from the Kansas City Royals in 1974, Drago finally found a competitive clubhouse during the team's spring training run. The Easter egg chase was just a momentary distraction from a sharper focus: Let's play ball.

Drago looked around in awe: There was Carl Yastrzemski taking whacks in the batting cage. Rico Petrocelli fielding grounders at short. Luis Tiant warming up on the pitcher's mound. All-time great Ted Williams was always around.

"For the first time, I really felt like I was in the big leagues," Drago said. "It was a whole different feeling. You felt like you could contend at any time."

That they did, advancing to the World Series in 1975. Drago, a pitcher, spent two seasons with the Red Sox before making a second run with the team in 1978.

The Red Sox were the first tenants at Chain O' Lakes. The Indians came here in 1993, playing their last spring training game here on March 27, 2008, before going to Arizona

Like most cities, Winter Haven has changed a bit over the years, but it still has a sleepy feel to it. Back then, the players had few choices during their off time: Hanging out at the pool at the Holiday Inn, or going for dinner at Christy's Sundown Restaurant & Cocktail Lounge, the most upscale place in town. It was a hopping place, documented by the signatures on the wall: Esther Williams, Johnny Carson, Carol Burnett and Roy Rogers. The landmark restaurant was sold in 2007.

The stadium itself has gone through some changes. The left-field bleachers used to be a picnic area. There were five pitcher's mounds in the area by the home team clubhouse, where you can now find another set of bleachers. The condos behind the right field fence are new, too.

"But the seats are still the same color — red," Drago said. "I guess the Red Sox and Cleveland have pretty much the same colors, so it wasn't a problem."

Dick Drago pitched for 13 seasons in the majors, posting a 108-117 record with a 3.75 ERA. As an historical footnote, Drago gave up the last of Hank Aaron's then-major league record 755 career home runs on July 20, 1976. Now 64, he lives in Tampa.

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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