WINTER HAVEN — It’s a Thursday in February and cars are parked at Chain of Lakes Stadium. The scoreboard is on and the crack of a bat breaks up the afternoon monotony.
It has been more than a decade since the Cleveland Indians left Winter Haven in 2008 to make a new Spring Training home in Arizona, but spring baseball in Winter Haven persists. The players are a little younger and the crowds are a little smaller, but thanks to the RussMatt Central Florida Invitational, its persists.
The annual event, in its 15th year overall and its 10th spring in Polk, will run through the end of March.
For college baseball teams in northern states, the ability to head south and play out the early weeks of their schedules keeps the sport viable until warmer temperatures arrive. So, an event like RussMatt provides an opportunity for teams, ranging from Division I programs you may have heard of to Division III and NAIA programs you likely have not, to get valuable games in — hundreds of them, in fact.
“I think (RussMatt is) a very well-kept secret — but it’s not a secret to these 270 teams that come down here,” said Rob Sitz, the event’s president.
The lion’s share of games for Russ-Matt will take place in Polk at Chain of Lakes Complex and Lake Myrtle Sports Complex. Others will take place in Lakeland, Lake County, Osceola County and as far away as Sanford in Seminole County.
Nearly 270 teams will be hitting the diamond for RussMatt, and the event is as much a boon for the local economy is at is for local baseball fans. Event officials estimate this year’s invitational will result in more than 35,000 hotel room nights, not to mention restaurant meals for players, coaches and fans who traveled to see their team.
“We’re not your traditional spring break market, but RussMatt is definitely bringing college-age students here — and their families are coming out as well, turning it into a vacation and watching their sons play baseball,” said Marc Zimmerman, the senior sales and events manager for
Central Florida’s Polk County Sports Marketing. “Its tremendous for us to be able to have that.”
Crowds at the games draw more than family members, too. RussMatt sells single game, week-long and full tournament passes and, according to Sitz, the walk-up traffic is especially strong in Winter Haven.
“I think in Winter Haven we get more (walk-up traffic) then we get anywhere else,” Sitz said. “I get calls and emails from locals asking for the schedule at Chain of Lakes. … I think this stadium (Chain of Lakes) is an important aspect of that because it brings back memories. I don’t think a lot of people care if it’s college baseball or pro baseball -- it’s just a great atmosphere here.”
RussMatt started last week, but picks up steam in the coming two weeks, hitting its busiest stretch around the weekend of March 8-10. During that time, Sitz said the event will play host to as many as 80 games per day on as many as 30 fields.
Beyond the facilities that are official tournament sites, games are played a local high schools and colleges around Polk, in addition to municipal facilities. A full schedule for the event can be found at RussMatt.com.
At the end of the day, to pull off an event at this scale, collaboration is more than necessary.
“It really is a big community effort to make this all work,” Sitz said.
Contact Steven Ryzewski at email@example.com.