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Thursday, Apr 24th

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Pat Thomas Stadium / Leesburg Lightning

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For those of us spending any time at all in central Florida, the addition of a Leesburg team in the Florida Collegiate Summer League made all the sense in the world. Leesburg is in the midst of the fast-growing 27/441 corridor stretching to Ocala and encompassing The Villages, and a quaint old ballpark -- Pat Thomas Stadium, a former home of the Phillies' minor-league spring-training complex -- was kept up and ready to roll.

FAST FACTS

Year Opened: 1937
Cost: $19,000
Capacity: 2,000 (at the most)
Dimensions: 325L, 375C, 325R
Playing Surface: Grass
Web Site: floridaleague.athleticsite.com
Phone: 321/206-9174
League: Florida Collegiate Summer League
Parking: Free but limited in adjoining municipal lot
Address/Directions: From the Florida Turnpike, take exit 289 (U.S. Highway 27/441). Follow the highway north towards Leesburg (15 miles). Make a right on E. Dixie Avenue; the ballpark will be on your right after 1.5 miles. Look for a marina sign; the ballpark shares a parking lot with the public-access facility.

The ballpark is the big reason why the Leesburg Lightning is the best draw in the summer-collegiate Florida Collegiate Summer League, attracting larger crowds most weekends and generating near-capacity attendance when the likes of the US Military All-Stars hit town.

Pat Thomas Stadium is located near the shores of Lake Harris in the old Venetian Garden area of Leesburg. It comes from a more romantic era in Florida, built in 1937 on what was then an island -- earning the name of Baseball Island of Venetian Gardens -- as part of the Works Progress Administration and luring the Phillies to town. It's basically in the same shape as it was the day it opened, except for the removal of the grandstand press box.

In fact, attending a Lightning game is like a trip back in time. It's mostly bleacher seating under the large grandstand roof, a pleasant place to be if there's any sort of breeze at all. Fans bring their own chairs to sit in a covered area down the right-field line, which is where several concession stands are located. Because the Lightning charges no admission, kids come and go out of the ballpark; some hang out in the parking lot to snare foul balls, while others spend time with their families.

And there is some history there. As we said, the Phillies ran minor-league training camp there through 1968, but MLB exhibition games were held there through 1971, when Hank Aaron and the Atlanta Braves came to town. Minor-league teams in the Class A Florida State League were fixtures there; Cal Ripken Sr. began his managing career there, and Phil Niekro, Darrell Evans, Rollie Fingers and Johnny Bench all spent time on the playing field. That MLB legacy continues today, with former Cy Young winner Frank Viola piloting the Lightning.

What to Do
The town of Leesburg has 16,000 residents, but there can be various things to see while you are not at the ballpark. Venetian Gardens, which the ballpark is located at, offers scenic viewing of Lake Harris, canals, picnic areas and entertainment during the summer months. Just north of Leesburg -- through Lady Lake -- is the burgeoning and sprawling development known as The Villages, which features a couple of manmade downtowns, lakes, a slew of restaurants and over 80,000 residents.