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The Florida Gulf Coast, which has cornered the market on white sand, shuffleboards and septuagenarians, also has a near monopoly on spring baseball. In the short strip of water-washed preserve from Clearwater south to Sarasota, a distance of perhaps 50 miles as the locker-room rumor flies, no fewer than seven ball clubs are dug in, waiting for April as impatiently as lovers.
Tampa, where the big planes come in from the North, is no real resort city but, once in town to look over the White Sox or the Cincinnati Redlegs, visitors can cruise down to the docks to watch the white motorships up from Central America disgorge their green bananas, or the fleet of 250 shrimp boats, most of them operated by Negro crews, edge into harbor from long excursions off the Campeche shrimp banks. Nor would I miss a look at the fantasia of the University of Tampa, housed in the old Tampa Bay Hotel, which opened in 1891 complete with 13 silver minarets and uncounted Moorish arches. Although it was said to be a copy of the Alhambra, its Victorian red-brick walls and the bearded water oaks that surround it tend to disrupt the illusion.
Aside from this faint echo of Granada, Tampa has, in the district known as Ybor City, some 40,000 Latins, most of whose antecedents moved with the cigar industry as it migrated from Havana to Key West and finally to the Gulf Coast. The 100 cigar factories of Ybor City turn out 3 million cigars a day, and most of them will welcome visitors. (Check the Chamber of Commerce, as visiting hours change.) There is no saving if you buy stogies where they are put together; the only advantage is guaranteed freshness.
Two famous Spanish restaurants in Ybor City, Las Novedades and Columbia, are in hot competition to peddle a paella. Las Novedades is built like a Moorish courtyard, with orange trees in the corner and a banderilla of naranjas, more Sunkist than Seville, slung over the grillwork windows. It has that slightly seedy air of a true gourmet corner—you can order crawfish nine different ways—but there is also a table d'h�te dinner at $3.50 which includes Spanish beans, Spanish mixed salad, sea bass, Spanish yellow rice with chicken, egg custard and inky coffee. There is a coffee and pastry shop adjoining where you can pick a kind of deflated napoleon, called a se�orita, or a guava turnover out of the banks of cakes.
On the other hand, Columbia is an awesome maze of nine dining enclosures, the most elegant of which is the Siboney Room, where the waiters wear gold sashes and there is a regular show, usually imported from Spain. Troubadours stroll the other suites, where diners can pick dinners ($2.50 to $4) from a 26-page menu that has everything from a chicken sandwich to Spanish squid and rice.
A CUBAN DAGWOOD
Anybody in a hurry for the ball park might look into the Silver Ring on East Broadway, an unpretentious short-order den where a meat-slicer works in one window, a sandwich-maker in the other, their joint product being a Cuban Dagwood which includes ham, pork, salami, cheese, mustard, lettuce, tomato and pickle, all mounted on foot-long Cuban bread. Price: 50�, 35� if you leave off the lettuce and tomato.
The Redlegs stay at the Floridan and train at Cuscaden Park, and the White Sox put up at the Tampa Terrace and work out at Al Lopez Field, a handsome cantilevered stadium not five minutes from the airport and named, of course, for the local sportsman, who is to Tampa approximately what Napoleon is to Corsica. Also within shootin' distance of the runways is the Cigar City Gun Club, where a man's sights are just as likely to be filled with a plane as a pigeon.
The Philadelphia Phillies are tucked away in the modest resort of Clearwater on the Gulf of Mexico, dead west of Tampa. The Fort Harrison Hotel where they stay is scented with the manly effluvium of hair tonic and cigars, but in the back it has appended a curvy pool, a putting green and a collection of tables and chairs where bathers can eat and drink. The coffee shop is better than par, and the rooms run $10 to $15 single, $13 to $20 double, all with bath.
Gulf Coast resorts from Clearwater south all the way to Fort Myers offer most of their swimming on the white sand keys that lie just offshore, near enough in most cases to be reachable over a causeway. Clearwater Beach is public and unpretentious, with gulls squawking overhead, the wind rustling through the dry fronds, an artist making sand paintings and a sign warning visitors that no alcohol, obscene language, or more than one rod per person will be tolerated on the beach.