Leesburg Lightning always put on a good show at the stadium

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There is really something special about spending a summer evening at the baseball stadium.

Especially if the yard is Pat Thomas Stadium-Buddy Lowe Field and you’re there to a Leesburg Lightning game.

The league’s stated goal is to provide college baseball players with the opportunity to improve their skills using wooden bats rather than their composite or metal counterparts, but it’s much more than that.

Especially for Leesburg Lightning fans.

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I’ve been attending Lightning games from the start. I was there for opening night in 2007 – damn it, I was there on July 4, 2006, when a boisterous, overflowing crowd showed up for a demo game between Winter Park and Altamonte Springs.

Electricity was unlike anything I’d known in a baseball stadium. The World Series opener at Tropicana Field in 2008, when Tampa Bay hosted Philadelphia, didn’t match the juice inside “The Pat” that night.

Seriously.

And the explosion of emotion that accompanied Florida Collegiate Summer League president Sara Whiting’s announcement that Leesburg would be granted a franchise likely created waves in nearby Lake Harris.

“You have a team! Whiting told the masses midway through that match, which featured Jonathan Lucroy, Umatilla high school graduate and future big leaguer.

And since then, it’s been magic.

Leesburg Lightning remains one of FCSL’s best draws

Since the Lightning played their first game on June 7, 2007 – an 8-7 loss to Winter Park – in front of a bustling crowd – Leesburg has been one of the FCSL’s best franchises. The Lightning have dominated the league every year of its existence, often attracting over 1,000 fans for a routine weekday game.

Other franchises burst with pride when crowds exceed 200 or 300.

In Leesburg, it took a health pandemic, along with federal, state and local regulations that mandated social distancing to limit attendance to those levels.

Young fans watch a 2017 Leesburg Lightning practice at Pat Thomas Stadium-Buddy Lowe Field.  The Lightning has always attracted its fair share of young fans, who admire college players as many do in the big leagues. [DAILY COMMERCIAL FILE]

The Lightning has an all-time high of 332-245, heading into Tuesday’s scheduled game against Seminole County. That’s a payout percentage of 0.575.

No Major League Baseball team can boast such a high winning percentage. The New York Yankees – with 10,800 wins and 8,221 losses – come closest at 0.568.

Even the Tampa Bay Rays, one of the best teams in MLB since reaching their World Series debut in 2008, can’t compete with the Lightning. The Rays have a 0.491 winning percentage, with an all-time record of 2031-2106.

OK, I know it’s a bit of comparing apples to oranges, but the point is, the Lightning have always successfully rewarded their fans’ loyalty.

The Lightning loyalists reveled in two league championship wins, including one in the team’s inaugural season and another in 2009. Five more trips to the FCSL title game or series followed that second title. , although Leesburg failed each time.

Still, that represents seven chances to win a league title in the Lightning’s first 14 seasons – a 50-50 chance.

Every Major League Baseball team would gladly accept these chances.

The story continues at Pat Thomas Stadium

Not really a baseball fan, but more of a history buff?

There aren’t many places around Lake County that can boast of the legacy that comes with Pat Thomas Stadium-Buddy Lowe Field. Originally built in 1937 and named Ballpark at Venetian Gardens – it was renamed Pat Thomas Stadium in 1972 and the name of Leesburg High School coaching legend Buddy Lowe was added in 2003 – the baseball stadium reeks of history.

It was home to various Florida State League franchises, starting with the Gondoliers in 1937 until 1968 when the Oakland Athletics moved their FSL branch out of town and into the California League where they became the Lodi Crushers.

Two FSL Championship flags flew over the stadium. The Leesburg Anglers won the honors in 1941 and the Athletics won the title in 1966.

Jackie Robinson would have played there in 1949 during a spring training match between Philadelphia and Brooklyn. According to lore, Hank Aaron once hit a home run over the right-field fence – no word if he made it to the lake – and Johnny Bench, along with Pete Rose, played there.

Cal Ripken Sr. led the Leesburg Orioles in 1961. His son – Cal Ripken Jr. – junior was born in 1960, so the odds are probably pretty good that the future Hall of Fame’s first exhibition at a baseball stadium would have took place in Leesburg.

Even rain and lightning delays – no pun intended – are okay on a night out at “The Pat”.

Be sure to refuel at the PT Cafe

Especially if you make it to the PT Cafe, aka the concession stand, before the weather forecast. A few dogs – traditional or sausage – accompanied by a drink and a bag of peanuts can attract even the crispiest fans on one of Mother Nature’s unwanted visits.

After: Frank Jolley’s love affair with the great American hot dog

Victor Crosby prepares burgers and hot dogs at Pat Thomas Stadium-Buddy Lowe Field.  Crosby has provided Lightning fans with the best baseball food for many years. [PAUL RYAN / CORRESPONDENT]

PA announcer Glenn Cowham becomes a disc jockey and spins a variety of songs. He might even offer a bonus quiz with a Lightning souvenir to the winner.

The interns on the team showcase their dancing skills – often causing a laugh or two – to the success of the Village People, YMCA.

Without a doubt, there are much worse – and less entertaining – places to get stuck during a thunderstorm.

Perhaps this is the elixir that makes an evening with Lightning so enjoyable.

No matter what happens, you usually walk through the doors feeling better than when you walked in.

Write to Frank Jolley at frank.jol[email protected]

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