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A century of sunshine: The story of Clearwater, Florida

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The Phillies' home for spring training celebrates its centennial surrounded by Scientology’s secrets and soaked in Seminole blood.

David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

We fancy Philadelphia-types may look down at Clearwater and think it's just where the Phillies disappear to for a month and a half in order to become a baseball team every spring.

But did you know that the town isn't shuttered and forgotten the other 10 and half months of the year? Yes, what you assumed were cardboard cut-outs of people walking in the background are actually real humans, living their lives in the intense warmth and joy with which the month of January has always been known.

As Clearwater celebrates its centennial in 2015, they do so with the Phillies having briefly inhabited their town every March for the last 68 years. But the local community has become more than just the setting of our annual Phillies pre-season adventure: Larry Christenson liked the sunshine. Darren Daulton liked the palm trees. One year, Dallas Green was a hernia away from leaving Clearwater and going to war.

Each Phillie has their own Clearwater story, but Clearwater, it turns out, has a couple stories of its own.

***

The area now known as "Clearwater" was settled in the mid-1830s, a decade or so after the soggy flab dangling off the southeast edge of America was designated as "Florida, a territory I guess we are choosing to be responsible for." Around this time, a man named Conte Odet Phillippe showed up and developed a hankering for slave labor. Phillippe, the former chief surgeon of Napoleon Bonaparte's navy, eventually started the first citrus plantation in what must have been a startling career move for his loved ones. Some of the original trees from his property are still growing today.

As the years went on, per American tradition, Florida went about its required early history of bloodshed. In what was then called Clear Water Harbor, named for the springs of crystal clear water in the surrounding bluffs, Fort Harrison was constructed as a medical outpost for brave soldiers wounded while performing their sworn duty to massacre Seminole Indians.

The U.S. government really stepped it up during the Second Seminole War, spending $20 million in what the Florida Department of State calls the "fiercest war waged by the U.S. against American Indians." Such was the enthusiasm for the spilled blood of the Seminoles that relations between the government and Native Americans remained irreparable for eons into the future. In one particularly skillful act of treachery, U.S. soldiers waved a truce flag, drawing in the Seminole leader Osceola, and promptly imprisoned him.

Things cooled down in August of 1842, at the dawn of the world's most cumbersome hash tag.

A decade or so later, another Seminole War started, but that one is not without its detractors.

In a delightful modern nod, the Phillies have been starting their exhibition schedule each March with a game against the local Florida State Seminoles, the defeat of whom is far less visceral and heartbreaking.

***

In 1906, Clear Water Harbor became Clearwater, a fun tourist destination for people who hadn't a care in the world. By the twenties, vacationing there was at a premium.

"What could possibly go wrong?!" people probably wondered at one of the many, many beach dance parties. The parties came to an abrupt end in 1928, when the real estate market crashed, and former attendees began throwing themselves from the balconies of sand castles.

Fortunately, the Great Depression was satiated by World War II. Clearwater became a staging area for training drafted soldiers, and many would return there to re-enter their lives following the war. Which was perfect timing because not long after the end of WWII, in 1947, the Phillies came to town.

The '47 Phils were a Very Bad Baseball team managed by the horrifically racist Ben Chapman (From the New York Times - Chapman "taunted Jewish spectators at Yankee Stadium with Nazi salutes and anti-Semitic epithets" in his playing days) who that very season would infamously race-bait Jackie Robinson at the height of his ethnic slurring career, in a situation that would end with the most awkward photograph of all time.

Here is a rundown of 1947 Phillies' most old-timey player names:

  • Skeeter Newsome
  • Schoolboy Rowe
  • Putsy Caballero
  • Blix Donnelly
  • Rollie Hemsley

They would finish 62-92, tied for last place with the Pirates, and with Chapman as their manager, they were even lower than their record indicated.

The Phillies, it seems, had only wound up in Clearwater because Indians owner Bill Veeck was trying desperately to leave. As Veeck pondered abandoning the town for Tuscon, AZ, the Phillies and St. Louis Browns began lavishing attention onto the Clearwater officials. The Phillies worked out a deal with the town, but Veeck returned, realizing he had overlooked the severity of Arizona's dust storms. The Phillies turned him away and became the city's only pre-season visitors.

There had been 24 locations used for the Phillies' spring training prior to Clearwater, including Washington D.C. (1902), Biloxi, Missouri (1938), and Hershey, Pennsylvania (1943). But to this day, no MLB team has used one town for its spring training workouts longer than the Phillies have done so in Clearwater.

The Phillies were free to weave their narratives over the course of several decades. But no matter the season's story, they all started under the bright sun of Clearwater. They would all end in sadness.

It was a trend that broke as a new era dawned in the mid to late seventies. But the seventies, as was the case in a lot of American cities, was just when things were getting pretty weird in Clearwater.

***

Mike Schmidt, Larry Bowa, Greg Luzinski, Garry Maddox, Steve Carlton, and the gang were a perennial playoff squad who in 1980 succeeded in breaking through and won the franchise's first World Series. But as the maroon and powder blue Phillies headed north one year, the Church of Scientology was passing them going the other way.

Calling themselves the "United Churches of Florida," Scientologists, led by L. Ron Hubbard wearing an elaborate fake mustache, probably, bought the Fort Harrison Hotel for $3 million (A hotel where the Phillies had previously stayed during spring training), as well as the bank across the street. His belief was that his group's false name would not set off any alarms in the conservative west Florida religious climate.

It did not. From there, the group's "Project Normandy" was go.

The mayor of Clearwater at the time, Gabriel Cazares, was sort of puzzled as to the sudden presence of security details outside of his community's churches. To assure him that everything was fine, Scientologists framed him for a hit-and-run, and forged marriage documents to make him look like a bigamist with a secret family in Tijuana.

Finally, somebody at the Clearwater Sun started to notice some weird shit going down and the newspaper won a Pulitzer chronicling its own secret war.

Clearwater Sun

"The Church of Scientology came to Florida's Suncoast in late 1975 wearing a cloak of secrecy that concealed a dagger of deceit," wrote Charles Stafford in his 1976 expose, "Scientology: An In-Depth Profile of a New Force in Clearwater."

Hubbard was trying his best to remain in the shadows, but in Clearwater - the town that holds the record for most consecutive sunny days with 361 - the shadows don't stay in the same place for long.

From Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright:

"1976, his tailor leaked the news to a St. Petersburg Times reporter that the leader of Scientology was in town. As soon as Hubbard heard this, he grabbed twenty five thousand dollars in cash... and lit out in his Cadillac for Orlando."

Hubbard eventually fled to Queens, spending the whole journey chain smoking and freaking out anytime he saw a police car.

In 1977, the FBI raided the Scientology HQ and discovered all the documents that painted a clear picture of their intention to take over the city. It was insanely creepy, and fueled the climate of paranoia that defined the era.

38 years later, the Scientologists are still there, fighting to keep downtown Clearwater free of aquaria.

***

The archbishop steps forward and hurls the Epiphany Cross into the waters of the Spring Bayou, into which it is followed by 20,000 pursuers. Several moments of thrashing are followed by the emergence of a young man, clutching the prize in an outstretched hand as he breaks the surface to a wave of anguished cries.

It's St. Nicholas Day in Tarpon Springs, and as they have each January 6 since 1906, the Historic Greek Village is alive with jubilant celebrations and soaking wet young men chasing relics into the sea.

While we in the north crave any baseball news -  we're slowly turning the departure of a truck carrying equipment down a southbound highway into a holiday - Clearwater has activities going on right up until spring training, providing a preview of what life is like when it doesn't revolve around a terrible baseball team.

The Greeks aren't the only ones having a good time. Things are heating up on a local abandoned lot, according to the Tampa Bay Times:

"Kids shoot potato guns there. They use a fiberglass tube, spark plugs and a barbecue igniter. They fill the chamber with hairspray or gasoline, and put a potato in there. It goes off like a bazooka."

Ha ha, whoa!

And now, the Phillies will arrive, to lay the foundation for another magical season. Their future remains mysterious, as we don't know exactly how long a rebuild will take, who will be involved, or who will be in charge, but it's pretty much a guarantee that each season's foundation will be laid in a little west Florida town just off the Gulf of Mexico.

As long as the Scientologists don't have a problem with it.