Bill Conlin: In Clearwater, Phillies' beach ball has never been so glorious

Phillies Nation will flock to charming Clearwater amid palm trees and Phillies' workouts.
Phillies Nation will flock to charming Clearwater amid palm trees and Phillies' workouts.
Posted: February 11, 2011

CLEARWATER, Fla. - On a chilly mid-February day in 1967, the Phillies beat writer and his family headed west on the Courtney Campbell Causeway across Tampa Bay for his first of 44 Phillies spring-training assignments.

Had I used the Howard Frankland Bridge - the "Car Strangled Spanner" as it was known then - I would have hit Gulf Boulevard just a half-block from our Indian Rocks Beach destination.

But how could I have known that? Phillies traveling secretary Charlie Meister gave me the address where the Conlins would share a duplex bungalow with centerfielder Tony Gonzalez and his wife, Rosario.

In 1966, and until Knight Newspapers bought the Inquirer and Daily News from Walter Annenberg's Triangle Publications, the Phillies paid all our travel expenses. Not only for the 6 weeks of spring training, but for the 81 road games of the regular season, as well. Airfare, hotel, meal money, and in spring training, you could choose to live in the Jack Tar Hotel or in a rental property costing the same amount. In this case, the bungalow rental was $110 a week.

Nor was the ballclub's largesse limited to the Inquirer and Daily News. The Evening Bulletin, Camden Courier-Post and Wilmington News Journal were also comped through an egregious conflict of interest common throughout the newspaper industry.

We were whores by editorial

fiat . . . There is no delicate way to put the reality of it. To the Phillies' credit, I was never pressured into putting a smiley face on the ballclub because "you owe us."

Clearwater and the Gulf beaches that included Clearwater Beach were strands in a sandy necklace of mom-and-pop cottage towns stretching nearly 25 miles to the southernmost tip of Pinellas County at Fort DeSoto.

Wilmington News Journal sports editor Al Cartwright once quipped, "On a windless night, you can hear the arteries harden."

Clearwater was a sleepy county seat of maybe 60,000, waiting to be discovered. The Phillies had a spring-training fan base, but it was a small one. Their fans often were badly outnumbered, particularly when the exhibition opponent was the Tigers or Red Sox. The Mets and Cardinals shared Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg. The Reds were in Tampa, the Pirates in Bradenton, the White Sox in Sarasota. The Dodgers had Vero Beach and the Space Coast to themselves. The pre-Steinbrenner Yankees trained in Fort Lauderdale. The Red Sox were in Winter Haven. The expansion Astros landed in Cocoa Beach.

What has become a dazzling Sand Key lineup of expensive condo high-rises (with hundreds of units currently for sale and few takers) was then 2 miles of mangroves and Australian pines. Nor was there a half-mile of expensive low-rise condos bearing salty names like Tortugas Del Mar, Los Caracoles, Alamanara, Sol y Sombra, Aldea and Son Risa. Within 5 years, they would become Ballclub Row, catering to the Carltons, McCarvers, McGraws and Kalases. And a few years after that, the Jack Tar, by then the Fort Harrison, had become the Eastern Headquarters of the Church of Scientology. Spring training had hit the beaches.

It is now my happy duty to

report that after 40 years of

relentless but snails-paced

highway construction involving

a half-dozen east-west arteries, the construction of Clearwater Beach high-rises, the completion of a $30 million beach promenade, the unveiling of the world's worst traffic circle, the Phillies' once somnambulant spring-training backwater is finished.

Cut the ribbon.

Neither Rome nor Clearwater Beach was built in a day.

Tampa Bayside Clearwater is hard by U.S. 19, where Bright House Field and the Carpenter Minor League Complex form its western border. Sparkling Clearwater Beach hunkers against the Gulf of Mexico. Forget about Mr. In-Between, the urban sprawl.

Clearwater Beach and the

ballpark complex have become as much a part of Phillies Nation between pitchers and catchers reporting and the late-March

exodus to Citizens Bank Park as the Jersey Shore is to ball-fan summers.

I used to focus this annual State of Clearwater review on dining experiences in the beach cities. With notable exceptions, of course. The delightful - and pricey - French restaurant La Cachette was once a hidden

Indian Rocks Beach treasure.

It is now located in downtown Clearwater, but the place has not lost an ounce of charm. If you have a special occasion planned during your stay, Google it, browse the ever-changing menu, make a reservation and go for it.

Al and Stella's charming small Italian bistro relocated from IRB to Mandalay on Clearwater Beach last year. The Gulf Boulevard original is now Stefano's, run by the former Al and Stella's chef.

More and more people ask about a topic I refused to address for years: hotels and other lodgings. I refused because the area had become overbuilt with condos, while there were few

hotel rooms added to what had become a tired, outdated inventory. When Stan Musial's Clearwater Hilton was razed and the

elegant Clearwater Beach Hotel shut down, the only recommends I had were the pricey Sheraton Sand Key Resort

and the Marriott Resort across

Gulf Boulevard.

But with the worth-the-wait

reinvention of Clearwater Beach, has come the elegant Sand Pearl Resort, built on the site of the Clearwater Beach

Hotel. There is a new Regency Hyatt Resort, all suites, across from the showplace promenade. And the new Clearwater Hilton (formerly the Holiday Inn

Resort) has been totally

refurbished to first-class trim.

I tell fans the improved hotel situation - it's nice to have an

alternative to the U.S. 19 Motel Row - comes with a price. Think $250-300 as a midpoint for the new suite hotels. But, hey, you're on Dr. Beach's No. 1-rated municipal beach in America. And the sugar-sand strand of Clearwater Beach is flanked by Caladesi Island State Park and Honeymoon Island on the north and 25 miles of public-access beaches to the south, including Sand Key State Beach and Fort DeSoto State Park.

Last March's weather, however, left plenty to beach about. It was the coldest in my memory. Forget sand and sea. It was brutal most days for ballgames - San Francisco in July.

The Clearwater Beach dining scene is anchored by Heilman's Beachcomber and adjacent Bobby's Bistro. Each of the Big 5

resorts - Sand Pearl, Regency Hyatt, Hilton, Sheraton Sand Key and Marriott Resort - have wonderful dining choices. You can't walk a Clearwater Beach block without encountering a Frenchy's. Ken Hamilton's beachside Palm Pavilion remains the sunset must-see.

Over the view-spectacular Clearwater Pass Bridge to the Restaurant Rows of Sand Key (Columbia, Marriott's Watercolours, Sheraton's Rusty's, Backwaters (deck dining) and Indian Rocks Beach (Stefano's, Red

Lion Pub, Kooky Coconut,

Keegan's - of "Drive-Ins,

Diners and Dives" fame - PJ's Oyster Bar, Crabby Bills, Tapas Restaurant, Los Mexicanos, On The Rocks - formerly My Place - and TJ's), we come to my favorite:

Villa Gallace is that rarest of Florida finds - an actual Italian restaurant with a native chef, Marcello Caravello, representing three generations of noble cucina. VG is a favorite of Phillies front-office types, players and media. The father-son owners, Pompeo and Luigi Gallace, have maintained the high standards of their menu and their welcoming personas. What has expanded, however, is Luigi's Wall of Fame, which now lines both walls on the way to the restrooms and includes a touching photo and memorabilia tribute to his dear friend John Vukovich.

If you will excuse the the

vulgate usage, the Wall of Fame is to pee for . . .

Sparkling Clearwater is finally finished.

And Baja Jersey Shore could not have come out better.

Send e-mail to bill1chair@aol.com.

For recent columns, go to

www.philly.com/BillConlin.

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