PHOTO: FRED LOPEZ
Now that the dog days of summer
have arrived, baseball is in
A trip to the ballpark stimulates the senses. Fans see the star-struck faces of children who give each other high-fives as they watch their heroes take the field. They hear roaring as fans erupt in loud cheers when a player whacks a ball over left field. Then there’s the smell of hot dogs, cheeseburgers, and popcorn wafting from the concession stands.
Lake County residents don’t have to travel to Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg or Marlins Park in Miami to experience the thrill of watching a live baseball game. In fact, they can make a short drive to Pat Thomas Stadium and watch the Leesburg Lightning, one of six teams that compete in the Florida Collegiate Summer League (FCSL).
Since the Lightning formed nine years ago, Pat Thomas Stadium has consistently become an electrifying environment on game day. Fans arrive several hours early to deliver baked goods to players in the dugout. Children and adults enthusiastically sing the Village People’s “YMCA” and spell out the letters using arms and hands. Dozens of volunteers brave the summer heat to man the concession stand, sell Lightning memorabilia, or perform maintenance on the field so the grass is greener than broccoli on game day. Public address announcer Chuck Johnson sings “Happy Birthday” to fans and players celebrating that special day.
In fact, the Lightning’s support is unrivaled. The team averages nearly 1,300 fans for home games—twice as many as the other five teams in the FCSL. And that support extends well beyond Pat Thomas Stadium. Because the league is comprised of collegiate baseball players, several host families welcome the players to their homes for free during the two-month season.
“The all-around support that our hometown team receives is amazing,” says Tyler Brandeburg, who is president of the Leesburg Lightning. “They really embrace the team and have never wavered in their support. One of the reasons so many people come to Lightning games is because of the atmosphere. We do not sell alcohol at the games, which translates into a fun family environment.”
Let’s play ball!
The FCSL is a wooden bat league that allows collegiate players from around the country to continue playing during the summer and polish their skills against high-caliber competition.
The Lightning fielded its first team in 2007 and since then has struck fast and furious. Leesburg became the league’s first team to capture two championships, the last coming in 2009 under former coach and major league pitcher Frank Viola. The team has advanced to the FCSL championship game held at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg six times.
Although the Lightning narrowly lost the championship game to the Sanford River Rats in 2015, expectations are high this season because 10 players are returning from last year’s team. The 2016 roster also features several collegiate players who played high school baseball in Lake County. Among them are Leesburg High School graduates Tanner Long (outfielder), Jason Baita (second base), and Garrett Vathroder (pitcher), as well as Eustis High School graduate Austin Simmons (center field).
“I’m looking forward to spending my last summer of baseball playing in front of the greatest fans and making it back to Tropicana Field and winning,” Simmons says. “I want to give the fans a championship because they deserve it for all the support they give us.”
Long echoed those sentiments. “I cannot wait to play in Leesburg because of the competition and especially because of the great home crowds. The atmosphere is like no other.”
Having four local players gives fans an even greater incentive to attend games.
“The fact that several star baseball players from this area are on the team provides an extra level of excitement,” Brandeburg says. “It’s very rewarding for fans to see how the skill level of our local players has progressed since their high school days. And for the players, it’s fun to showcase their skills in front of family members and friends.”
As for wins and losses, Brandeburg won’t make any bold predictions for 2016. However, he does guarantee fans an enjoyable time.
“The participation of the entire community—including the City of Leesburg, businesses, fans, and volunteers—is what makes the Lightning so special. And being at the game allows fans to forget all their worries and enjoy a game of baseball in its purest form.”
For Brandeburg, a senior at the University of Florida, attending Lightning games is a family tradition. His father, John Brandeburg, was instrumental in forming the Leesburg Lightning and served as the team’s general manager and president for many years.
As a child and teenager, Tyler accompanied his father to the games and volunteered in several capacities—serving as batboy, handing out fliers, and manning the concession stand. Although his father passed away in 2014, Tyler is eager to continue his legacy.
“When I was younger I never understood what the point of having this team was,” he says. “I always wondered why my father put in all those long hours.
However, the past two seasons have helped me understand the value of having a team like this here in Leesburg. It’s obvious how much people in this county love baseball, and having a team like the Lightning gives our fans a team they can be proud of.”