by Jeff Noreman (photos by Jeff Noreman)
a preview from our printed College Edition…
Most college baseball programs in the northern part of the country are challenged to begin their season promptly. The temperature and precipitation are only part of the problem. Natural grass fields, or turf fields with dirt around the bases are many times saturated and render those fields unplayable.
Some colleges, especially Division I schools, schedule their own trips to warmer climes, playing schools on their home fields. Others, including many Division III colleges will attend an invitational where they can compete against a number of opponents during a single trip to a location with more appropriate baseball weather. One of the oldest and most successful events is the RussMatt Central Florida Invitational.
From Monday, February 17th until Tuesday, April 1st this year, the RussMatt Invitational schedule included 964 games. Although most participating teams were at the DIII level, RussMatt also had DI, DII, NAIA, and JuCo match ups, as well as an occasional cross-division contest. Many teams also conducted practices while visiting Central Florida.
The RussMatt Invitational primarily uses two facilities – Lake Myrtle Park in Auburndale and Chain of Lakes Park in Winter Haven, Florida. During its busiest weeks when the RussMatt schedule includes as many as 70 games each day, with games played at nearly every high school and college field in Polk County. It hosts approximately 200 teams each year, which is more than all other Florida spring break tournaments combined.
The Invitational was the brainchild of Dave Barnard, former baseball coach at Williams College in Massachusetts. His sons Russ and Matt, for whom the annual event is named, are now 18 and 16 years old and attend high school in Maine. While at Williams, Barnard explored his options for early season games for his team.
“I stumbled upon the idea,” explained Barnard. “Williams always played at Tampa, because (George) Steinbrenner (former owner of the Yankees) went to Williams. The problem we had was that all the (college) teams went to Ft. Myers, and we couldn’t get teams to come up and play us in Tampa. When the Phillies built a new complex a dozen years ago, I called up the city of Clearwater and asked them what they were going to do with the Phillies complex. They said they didn’t know. So I said ‘why don’t we do a little tournament,’ and my whole motivation was so that we could play at the Yankees complex.”
The first year saw over 40 teams sign up and play, The second or third year, the Texas Ranger left Port Charlotte for a new spring training facility in Arizona, and Barnard arranged to use their Florida facility. Within six years, the RussMatt Invitational was the Spring Training stop for over 200 teams, and Barnard stopped coaching to make the event his full time endeavor.
Barnard has shifted facilities as the situation changed. The Tampa Bay Rays took residence at the Port Charlotte facility while Polk County was in the process of completing a new $8 million Lake Myrtle multi-sport complex. The Cleveland Indians moved to Phoenix and Chain of Lakes became largely dormant, so the RussMatt event moved a large number of contests there.