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Homestead may demolish its ill-fated sliver of MLB history

July 5, 2018

HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) — The Homestead baseball stadium has been a lot of things in its time — a practice field for striking major-leaguers, a clandestine clubhouse for kids, a place where petty criminals were booked and held before moving to county jail, but mostly, a bit of an embarrassing money-suck for the city. Now, Homestead is considering bids to demolish the aging structure, a move that could seal the fate of one man’s 30-year old dream that never came true.

In the spring of 1989, an ambitious young city manager snatched millions in county tourism tax revenue out from under the usual Miami Beach recipients and used it to close a deal that he knew would change his South Florida city forever.

Alex Muxo, then city manager of Homestead, was going to use the $12 million bond and the loans he secured with it to build a baseball stadium — one so impressive it could be used for Major League Baseball spring training.

“It was a big thing,” Muxo remembered. “It certainly was going to put Homestead on the map at a national level.”

By the end of 1991, the $21 million field featuring 6,000 seats and 14 boxes was complete, painted pastel pink, and situated at the tail end of the crash zone of Homestead Air Force Base. Muxo brought team owners from the Red Sox, the Cardinals, the Indians and a handful of other teams to see it, in an effort to capitalize on a new MLB demand.

“Spring training was going through an evolution back in the mid ’80s and late ’80s. Teams were moving and teams were looking for new homes. Mostly in Arizona and also in Florida,” he said. In the end it was the Cleveland Indians that decided to make Homestead its spring home.

“That deal was signed — I know the date, I’ll never forget it — June 8th of 1991,” said Muxo. It was a 20-year contract, set to start in 1993. Billboards went up around the underdeveloped city, celebrating the monumental success. “It was excellent. Then, fast forward to August 24, 1992.”

On that day, Hurricane Andrew devastated South Miami-Dade County but especially Homestead and the stadium.

“The community basically was wiped out. City hall was left. Part of the power plant. Part of the hospital. Pretty much everything was wiped out,” said Muxo. The stadium was one of the first things they rebuilt. For Muxo, the reason was obvious. “The city needed a Phoenix.”

But after assessing the extensive damage to the city itself, the Indians apologetically pulled out of the deal, according to Muxo. And the city never found a replacement. Spring training moved away from South Florida. And for many years, the field sat empty. Now, almost 30 years after Muxo’s deal of deals, Homestead is considering demolishing the ever-empty, now dilapidated stadium that costs the city roughly half a million dollars a year to maintain.

“This was a field of dreams for the city of Homestead. It just never came true,” said Dennis Maytan, director of Parks and Public Works in Homestead. “I wanted to run from my house and see the lights on and know people were playing in our stadium.”

Instead, Maytan and his team spend time shooing off vandals, fighting a losing battle against roof leaks, and cleaning bird droppings from the jail cells constructed during the building’s short stint as a police precinct. Once, they busted a group of local teens who had broken into one of the side buildings and set up a sort of clubhouse for playing video games after school.

“How did we get here?” Muxo mused of his pet project. “If it weren’t for Hurricane Andrew it might have been different.”

But Andrew wasn’t exactly the end of the major league dream for the city. In 1993 the Indians played two hurricane-relief benefit games at the Homestead field against the Marlins. It was during those games that Muxo met his future employer, Wayne Huizenga, the former owner of the Marlins, Dolphins and Panthers but better known for his many successful businesses. Huizenga died this year.

In 1995, Homestead got another shot at the big leagues. Major League Baseball had tried to cap salaries, and the players went on strike on Aug. 12, 1994, causing the rest of the season to be canceled. For months, the Players Association duked it out with management. And with 1995′s opening day looming, the unprecedented backlog of still-unsigned players — free agents — needed a place to practice. So the Players Association hired Jackie Moore, a one-season catcher turned MLB coach, and sent him to train the free agents at a ballfield the association knew to be both up to their standards, and off the MLB grid — Homestead Sports Complex.

“We went down to get the free agents in shape. That was the perfect situation for it,” Moore remembers. “It was a major-league complex that they had rebuilt from the hurricane before.”

Dozens of men trained under Moore at the free agent camp, now something of an MLB legend. In its comprehensive history, the Ringer put the number at around 70, including big names like Randy Velarde of the Yankees. They played games against local college teams to stay fresh. Homestead loved it.

“I’m sure it was a shot in the arm for them,” said Moore. “These kids got to play against players that they had probably heard of, that they wanted to be like.”

The free agents called themselves the “Homestead Homies.” Moore said it was because they were sort of the odd kids on the block, training under unprecedented circumstances. On any other year, players would train with their club, which would jealously guard its talent from scouts. At Homestead, it was the opposite. Moore said he invited the scouts onto the field, in hopes of getting all of his guys hired. And it worked. Scouts came from all over.

“If they needed a certain player — a second baseman or whatever — chances are they could sign them out of Homestead. They were watching us real close,” remembers Moore.

By Opening Day on April 25, 1995, most of the players had been signed and Homestead’s stadium was vacated again. It would remain that way except for one series played between Florida International University and the University of Miami until July 2011 when John H. Ruiz, of Spanish-language TV, brought his company, La Ley Sports, and a new vision to the stadium.

According to city manager George Gretsas, La Ley was going to turn the stadium into “a first class youth and athletic sports venue” when he signed the lease-to-own contract on July 14, 2012. But La Ley ran into problems. “La Ley was unable to find insurance coverage for the property, as required by the contract, and fell behind on utility payments,” explained Gretsas.

Then he quickly fell behind on his rent and tied the city up in lawsuits for several years. One is still pending.

In the middle of all of that, in April 2012, the Department of Children and Families was also called in to investigate 23 Venezuelan teenagers found living in bad conditions in the locker rooms. Ruiz said he was not responsible for them as he had rented the space to Gigantes Baseball Group, which recruits high school-aged baseball players and had brought the teens there.

In 2013, La Ley vacated the property, and once again the city was left scrambling to fill it. Years before, MLB spring training had moved away from South Florida, killing any hope that a team may decide to call the field home.

“We tried everything,” said Maytan. His team even offered the complex to David Beckham when they heard he was looking for a place to put a soccer stadium in South Florida. “It’s too far south,” was Beckham’s response, according to Maytan.

In 2015, the stadium received a new paint job and a $3 million renovation and became the Homestead Police Station, after the previous location became uninhabitable because of mold and other serious toxins. The sky boxes became offices, the ticket booth a place for a secretary, and the pink exterior was painted over a classic blue and white. The police used the converted stadium facilities until they moved in to a newly constructed precinct in early 2017.

Using the stadium in the interim saved the city millions, Maytan said. For him, that’s a silver lining to the field’s sad history.

After Hurricane Irma caused more damage to the empty structure last year, the City Commission asked Maytan to do a feasibility study on the complex. “It’s a money pit,” Maytan admitted. Five out of the six options that came back in the study involve tearing down the ball park.

So the city solicited demolition bids. Four companies offered their services with price tags ranging from $594,800 to over $1 million. The commission could discuss the bids at its July 10 meeting but won’t be able to make any final decisions until July 25 at the earliest. Maytan says he thinks the demolition will move ahead. What will replace the stadium remains to be seen. The city could try to sell the land, but it cannot be developed for most purposes because of being in the crash zone of the air base. Maytan hopes it will become a park.

“It breaks my heart to hear that they are looking at an option to demolish it,” said Muxo. “Do we wish things would have turned out different, yes. But you can’t change nature and what happened.”

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Information from: The Miami Herald, http://www.herald.com

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