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Welcome To The GCL

June 30, 2008
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Welcome to the Gulf Coast League (GCL), where the Cleveland Indians lowest level affiliate the rookie-level GCL Indians reside. It is professional baseball in its rawest form, with a roster littered with draft picks out of high school from the two most recent drafts, as well as several young Latin American players experiencing professional baseball stateside for the first time.

Last year, I ventured down to Winter Haven, Florida in late-July for my first taste of life in the GCL, and I will get a second taste of it when I visit at the end of July again this year. What an interesting experience it is.

Whether you go to Buffalo to watch the Indians Triple-A affiliate in action, or you go to Mahoning Valley to catch the Indians short-season Single-A affiliate in action, you always catch the game in a stadium with fans in attendance. That's not the case for the GCL Indians. When the games are being played, you would think you were watching a high school baseball scrimmage. They play on the Indians Triple-A practice field located adjacent to the minor league clubhouse at the Indians spring training complex at Chain of Lakes Park in Winter Haven, Florida. This year, because the Indians will no longer be playing in the major league field, the GCL players have been playing in the stadium the Indians used for a month and a half in spring training to play games.

If you take a look around, there is definitely a feeling of isolation. There is no one working in the administration buildings. No front office. No open concession stands. No restrooms. No press box. No fans. The only applause you hear when the home team makes a nice play, makes a good pitch, or gets a hit comes from the coaches and players in the dugout.

Just to give you an idea of how different it is at this level, the "front office" is the trainer Teddy Blackwell. That's it. There just is not anything there, except a handful of coaches and roughly 50 players who make up the GCL team and others from various parts of the organization on rehab assignments, and the trainer. That is your GCL Indians organization.

The ticket office where patrons would normally buy tickets during spring training is all closed up, and in fact the entire facility is in a state of hibernation until next spring training. All except the minor league clubhouse and the practice fields. With this being the last year the Indians will be in Winter Haven, everything is boarded up and ready to be closed for good once the GCL team wraps up play at the end of August.

The setup of the Winter Haven facility where it basically is only fully operational for two months out of the year is a big reason the Indians are moving their spring training operations to Goodyear, Arizona next year. At Goodyear, the Indians will have a brand-new state of the art training complex that should be fully operational year round. It will become a true sister operation to the team headquarters in Cleveland located at Progressive Field.

The GCL team is just a temporary home for the Indians rookie-level prospects. The GCL team was started up in 2006, and ended up replacing Burlington by year's end as the Indians affiliate where most of their recent high school draft picks and Latin American players get their first taste of professional baseball. The GCL team is temporary because when spring training operations move to Goodyear, Arizona in 2009, the GCL team will be scrapped and the Indians will have a rookie-level team in the Arizona League starting in 2009.

The trip to Winter Haven to see the GCL Indians in action last year turned out to actually be the most interesting stop for me among all my minor league visits the last two years. Not because it was a great venue, or the games were exciting, but because of how raw the level is and how isolated the players seem to be from the world. Also, with how far away they really are from the majors let alone Mahoning Valley and Lake County (the next steps up). A lot of these players will not even make it out the GCL and be cut from the team this offseason or next spring, while some of these players will be in Lake County next year.

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