Just a short turn off Daniels Parkway in Fort Myers, the road to the Big Leagues starts here.
Seventy times every year, a group of men from literally around the world will meet in a clubhouse, climb into a home white uniform with the word “Miracle” stitched onto the front, and walk out onto a baseball field. Although they’ve come here from across the U.S., Canada, Australia and other countries as close as the Caribbean or as far away as Korea, they all share their personal variation on the same dream — to climb the baseball ladder and maybe, one day, arrive in the Major Leagues. And for 25 or more of them each season, that road to the Bigs starts right here in Fort Myers, at Hammond Stadium.
Just as each player’s skills and personality are different, each player’s journey has begun and will end differently. Some will find the road to stardom quickly and easily. Others will take a long and winding path. And as statistics will tell, for the majority of these young men, the road will come to an end — short of their goals and dreams.
As a community, the baseball gods have blessed Fort Myers mightily. Both the Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins spring train here, bringing significant economic impact and media attention to our region. Even better, Fort Myers is home to the Twins’ “Class-A Advanced” baseball team, otherwise known as the Miracle.
Andrew Seymour is Vice President and General Manager of the Miracle, a job he’s held the past three years — although his association with the team dates to the 90s. And while he’s moved away and returned three times, he tells you there are two constants about Fort Myers and the Miracle.
“First, Southwest Florida is a beautiful place to live and work, and the support we receive from the community is tremendous,” he says. “Second, we pride ourselves on being a family friendly form of professional entertainment, good clean fun in a safe environment.” Last year, more than 133,000 of us — that’s almost 2,000 patrons each game — wholeheartedly agreed.
Seymour is also quick to point out that the baseball isn’t too shabby, either. “I would estimate that 17 or 18 players on the Twins major league roster (of 25) have played for the Miracle. So a night out at the ballpark? It’s your chance to have some fun and maybe catch a rising star or two.”
One such potential rising star is shortstop Nick Gordon. A native of Orlando, Gordon is the son of former major league pitcher Tom Gordon (who played 21 years) and brother of second baseman Dee Gordon of the Miami Marlins (a two-time All Star, Gold Glove Award Winner and 2015 National League batting title winner). Drafted fifth overall in 2014, the 20-year-old Gordon received $3.851 million to sign with the Twins — so the expectations, as both he and the organization see it, are high.
“I’m here to work hard, listen and learn, and do whatever I need to improve every day,” he says. “Just because I was a high draft choice doesn’t guarantee anything. I’ve got to produce.” Hitting over .300 with the Miracle to date this season suggests that Gordon is, indeed, listening and learning and producing.
Relief pitcher Todd Van Steensel’s journey to Fort Myers is decidedly different — taking him literally across the world and back more than once in his quest to make it to the majors. Born in Australia, Van Steensel was 16 years old and pitching in a national tournament when the Philadelphia Phillies offered him a contract. After high school graduation, he spent two years with the Phillies farm team but was released. He then returned to Australian baseball, signed with the Twins in 2011 and returned to the U.S., was released the same year, played in Australia again for a few years — then re-signed with the Twins in 2014 and relocated to Fort Myers.
Now 25 years old, Van Steensel calls being a minor league ballplayer “a grind. That’s the easiest and best way to describe it. The long bus rides, getting back in the middle of the night, then back on the field the next day to play another game. Even if you don’t feel your best, you get up and grind through it, give it your best effort and hopefully it turns out your way.”
The Miracle is one of 12 teams that comprise the Florida State League — a bus league, as Andrew Seymour calls it with road trips up to four hours, “that’s all about player development. It’s not glamorous. The guys playing here, most of them haven’t signed for a bonus. They don’t make a ton of money, believe me. They’re putting in a lot of sweat equity to advance their careers because they want the opportunity to one day make it to the majors and get that payoff. In the meantime, they live off their meager monthly checks, and they all make the same.”
One advantage Miracle players have over many of their counterparts is the fact that Fort Myers is the spring training home for the major league Twins — which is most apparent in the impressive Player’s Academy the team built as part of the CenturyLink Sports Complex. Here, Miracle players benefit with an extensive training facility, plus living quarters that include a recreation center, meeting rooms, study hall, dining hall and living quarters (double occupancy). “It’s amazing and extremely affordable for the guys, and includes three meals a day plus snack with nutritional guidance for each player, lodging like a great hotel room, maid service if they want, wireless internet and lots more,” Seymour notes. “All the amenities and conveniences are designed to make them better players. After all, the Twins are making investments in these players — generally about five years — and they want a return on their investment.”
Nick Gordon, Todd Van Steensel and 23 other young men would like to deliver on that investment. “Making it to the majors is a dream I’ve had since I was a kid,” Van Steensel says. “That’s what all the long bus rides are worth, that’s what all the hours in the sun are worth, a glimmer of hope that one day you might make it and get to perform on that level. I’ve been released before, I’ve tried to find a job, I’ve gone back to school, and the entire time baseball’s on my mind. This is my goal, and I’m gonna chase it as long as the stars let me, I guess.”
Story by John Sprecher | Images by Milissa Sprecher Photography