Every spring in Key West is the same in some ways. After Easter, traffic gets a little lighter. The weather gets a little warmer.
But some years, a lot of the city’s attention turns away from Duval Street, away from the waterfront. It turns to Rex Weech Field, home of the Key West Conchs baseball team.
In the stands, Bill Estes watched one of the last games of the regular season. The Conchs have already clinched top seed in the district. Estes has been at every game.
His grandson plays first base.
“Watched him all the way through the littlest Little League, all the way up now into high school baseball,” Estes said. “He’s a starter on the team.”
That’s a big deal. In Key West baseball isn’t something you do. It’s who you are. A thousand people can be in the stands for a high school baseball game.
“This is it. This is our home team. This is our minor league team. This is our major league team,” Estes said. “This is everything down here.”
Estes is a fan of the Conchs — the team. But he is not, himself, a Conch — he wasn’t born in the Keys. He didn’t go to Key West High School.
That’s true of a surprising number of the team’s fans watching the game.
“We’re very serious fans and we don’t even have any children that play,” said Donna Wheeler, at the game with her husband, Phil. From Vermont, they’ve lived in Key West for 10 years. She said they attend the games “because they’re so good. And we like baseball.”
They attend the games with friends who are Conchs — Eddie and Pat Castro. Eddie Castro is a retired fire chief. He didn’t play baseball in high school.
“I was the last one picked. I was really bad,” he said.
He had a grandson who was on the team six or seven years ago. But he’s been in the bleachers a lot longer than that.
“I’ve been coming since the ‘50s,” he said.
The 1950s is when Key West High School began its remarkable run of state championships. The first was in 1953, less than a decade after the high school first fielded a baseball team. The school has won 11 state titles so far.
And the history of the game in town goes back even further. In the early 20th century, major league teams on their way to Cuba would stop in Key West and play the local team.
“Key West is a baseball town,” said Ralph Henriquez, coach of the Conchs.
Baseball is one of the things that makes Key West feel like a town, not just a tourist destination. The high school games are broadcast on local sports radio, live from the ballpark.
There’s a pregame show. And sometimes former players show up in the stands.
These aren’t just hometown heroes. Recently the guest on Conchtown Live was Boog Powell. He was part of the Baltimore Orioles World Series champion teams in the 1960s. A four-time All Star. American League MVP.
But before he was a Baltimore Oriole, Boog Powell was a Key West Conch. His first championship was with Key West, on the 1958 team.
These days he has Boog’s Barbecue at Camden Yards - but he’s back in Key West for a ceremony honoring the 60th anniversary of his team’s championship run and reminiscing about what Key West was like when he was a kid.
“You didn’t do anything else,” he said. “You went diving, you went fishing and you played baseball.”
Kids growing up on the island now have a lot more options. But for some of them, baseball is still their first choice.
“This is where I spend probably most of my day and my life. I’m out here five or six hours every day,” said Antonio Knowles. He’s the team’s star pitcher and a good hitter, too. He’s a senior at Key West High School. Like a lot of local kids, he started young - at about 3 years old.
Ben Lowe has been in the stands for a lot of seasons. His sons played and now his grandson is a freshman playing third base.
He says baseball in Key West goes “real deep.” And he has a theory on why.
“It’s a little small island,” he said. “And it’s us against the world.”