Haunted Baseball

The origins of the Renaissance Vinoy Hotel in St. Petersburg, Florida trace back to a prank late one evening in 1923 involving legendary professional golfer Walter Hagen, entrepreneur Aymer Vinoy Laughner, and local financier Gene Elliott. On a dare, Hagen had been using Laughner’s pocket watch as a golf tee, driving golf balls without breaking the watch. When the trio retrieved the balls from the property of Benjamin Williamson, who lived across the street, Elliott noticed that the estate offered an expansive view of Tampa Bay, and suggested to Laughner that the land would be an ideal location for a world-class luxury resort. The next day Laughner and Elliott approached Williamson with a generous offer. The deed was signed that very afternoon on the bottom of a brown paper bag.

To hear ballplayers tell it, late-night mischief on the site did not end with Hagen’s errant golf balls.

Embedded in Washingtonian palms and crowned by an octagonal tower festooned with archways and intricate ornamental plasterwork, the Vinoy is a landmark on the St. Petersburg waterfront. 

The plush rooms and postcard-perfect vistas have always attracted the rich and famous (Marilyn Monroe, Jimmy Stewart, Calvin Coolidge), but ever since the resort opened it has been a posh home away from home for baseball clientele. George Sisler and the owners of the St. Louis Browns frequented the Vinoy when the team used training facilities in Tarpin Springs in the late 1920s, and Babe Ruth is known to have lived a lavish existence in the hotel during numerous Spring Trainings.  Today the Vinoy is the visiting team hotel for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

But movie stars and ball players are not the most famous guests at the Vinoy - ghosts are.  While some in baseball openly poke fun at the hotel’s numerous sightings, for many the fear of uninvited room guests is no laughing matter.

Relief pitcher Scott Williamson had never heard of the Vinoy being haunted when he stayed in an old section of the hotel with the Cincinnati Reds in mid-June 2003.  But he ended up with an experience he says he’ll never forget.

“I turned the lights out and I saw this faint light coming from the pool area.  And I got this tingling sensation going through my body like someone was watching me, you know?  I was getting a little paranoid. 

 “Then I roll over to my stomach.  And all of the sudden it felt like someone was just pushing down, like this pressure, and I was having trouble breathing.  So I rolled back over.  I thought, ‘That’s weird.’  I did it again, rolled back on my stomach.  All of sudden, it’s like I just couldn’t breathe.  It felt like someone was sitting on me or something.” 

This time when Williamson rolled onto his back, he opened his eyes.  “I looked, and someone was standing right where the curtains were.  A guy with a coat.  And it looked like he was from the 40s, or 50s, or 30s – somewhere around that era.”

Williamson called his wife Lisa, who worked in an emergency room, and asked if there could be a medical reason for the heaviness on his chest. “She went through all the things that could happen, but obviously hadn’t happened. She said ‘Why?’ And I said, ‘I tell ya, the weirdest thing just happened to me.’  I told her the whole story.”

“ESPN caught onto the story the next day,” adds Williamson.  “And then a buddy of mine went and did research on it. He came back and told me, ’You’re not gonna believe this!  There’s a guy who died in that hotel. His name was Williamson. He actually owned the hotel property before it was a hotel.’ He’s going through this whole thing about a fire and all this stuff. I’m like, ‘What’s his last name?’ He goes ‘Williamson.’ I was like, ‘You gotta be kidding me!’”

The Reds headed out of town the following day, and the unsuspecting Pittsburgh Pirates checked in to the Vinoy at three in the morning. Tired from the trip, Frank Velasquez, strength and pitching coordinator for the Pirates, didn’t hang around to wait for his bags from the bus driver. He undressed, laid down, and conked out. At around five in the morning, he opened his eyes and saw a sandy-haired, blue-eyed man standing in front of the window right by the desk. The figure was transparent and had on a white long-sleeved, button-collared shirt and khaki pants. His hairstyle suggested he was from another era. Velasquez looked, closed his eyes, turned towards the window and looked again. The apparition was still there, and Velasquez remembers feeling very casual about it.  So casual, in fact, that he fell back asleep. “We were so travel disoriented and it was so late,” says Velasquez.  “You can’t do anything but just close your eyes.”

In the visitors clubhouse at Tropicana Field the following day, Velasquez shared his story with first baseman Craig Wilson, who asked if he’d seen the ESPN Sports Center clip on Williamson’s encounter. Velasquez hadn’t and was dumbfounded as Wilson described the story that was very similar to his.

“The fact that it lined up with someone’s story that I never knew anything about just kind of helps me know that it was real,” says Velasquez.  “I don’t go telling a lot of people about it other than teammates. I think if it happens just once, then the reaction is, ‘Ah, you’re full of it.’ If several ballplayers and several people outside of the game said they’ve had similar experiences at that one hotel, then maybe there is something to it.”

Indeed, similar experiences at the Vinoy are rampant – including several from other Pirates personnel that very night.  The team’s staff assistant encountered someone who fit the description of Velasquez’s visitor. Struggling to unlock his door, he saw a gentleman in an old-fashioned formal suit pass by in the hall. Figuring it was the concierge, he quickly turned to ask for assistance.  But the gentleman had vanished.

Bullpen Coach Bruce Tanner looks upon his own incident that night as a bit more questionable. As he rinsed his hair in the shower, he heard something hit the floor of the bathtub. He looked down and discovered a dime at his feet. Tanner wonders if the dime – which was from the 1960s – fell out of thin air, or if he’d bumped the towels and knocked loose the coin accidentally folded inside.

Those accounts were unsettling enough for Jason Kendall and Alvaro Espinoza that they opted to stay at teammate Scott Sauerbeck’s home in Bradenton for the rest of the series. Pirates hitting coach Gerald Perry wished he had joined them. He swears to this day that on the team’s third night in the hotel, he awoke to find his room door wide open when he knew he had bolted it shut before retiring to bed.  “That was a door that automatically closes itself, so that was weird” said Perry. “I always lock my door at the hotel, so I know it wasn’t that I’d just forgotten. If that had happened the night before, I wouldn’t have stayed there that night. I’d have slept in the clubhouse.”

Former Toronto Blue Jays reliever John Frascatore heard for years that the Vinoy was haunted, and his family’s first stay at the hotel vindicated the stories. Having lived in the area since 1991 when he first came up with the St. Louis Cardinals, he and wife Kandria had heard the legends from old-timers and from articles in the St. Petersburg Times.  In the mid-1990s, the paper ran a story about a painting crew that fled their job site at the Vinoy after returning from a break to discover buckets of paint knocked off their scaffolding and splattered on the walls. Frascatore had also heard stories from his former Cards teammates who reported waking up to find that someone had unlocked their doors during the night. These tales reminded Frascatore of an experience of his own, in the minors in Erie, Pennsylvania, where he and his teammates heard big band music late at night blasting from an adjacent hotel room that maids said was sealed off because it was haunted.

The Vinoy stories had so bothered Kandria, who had grown up in St. Petersburg, that she refused to stay in the hotel. Instead, Frascatore commuted the ninety minutes to and from his home in Brooksville, Florida when the Jays played the Devil Rays.  But wanting a little more rest between a Friday night game and a Saturday day game in July 2001, John convinced Kandria that it made more sense to stay closer to Tropicana Field. On Friday morning, Kandria nervously checked in with the kids while John headed for the ballpark.

Midway into the Jays’ batting practice that afternoon, clubhouse assistant Kevin Malloy dashed onto the field and told John, “You need to get in the clubhouse and call your wife now at the hotel.” John’s heart raced as he worried that something had happened to the kids. He rushed to the locker room, grabbed his cell phone, and called his wife. She answered in a shrill voice, “You get the travel secretary on the phone! I’m not staying in that room anymore! That room is haunted!”

“What are you talking about?” John asked.

Kandria explained that they had just finished lunch, and the kids had brushed their teeth.  Then 5-year-old Gavin reported something strange.  “Mom, the water keeps turning back on.” Kandria headed into the bathroom to find that indeed, the water was on.  She shut it, turning the knob tight.  Moments later, water was again flowing from the tap.  Again she shut it off.  Over the next couple of minutes, the faucet turned on by itself repeatedly and the toilet flushed three or four times.  Thoroughly spooked, the family fled without their luggage.  When they transferred to a room in the new wing of the hotel, front desk staff told them “that stuff happens all the time” in the old wing.

Prior to the game, John shared his wife’s incident with teammates, some of whom looked for a rational explanation:  the old wing has old pipes, they figured, and water pressure could rattle the faucet open. John rejected this.  “That whole place was gutted and redone recently. New plumbing. New paint. New sheetrock. New everything.”

Joey Hamilton and Billy Koch chimed in that they’d been spooked that previous night, when the lights in their rooms kept flickering. Several teammates echoed similar complaints, including hitting coach Cito Gaston, whose hotel room door, which he’d locked and chained shut, kept opening in the middle of the night and then slamming. “Then I go check and nobody was there. Nobody was in the hallway. Nothing.”  Manager Jim Fregosi reported that his door, too, had slammed. Third base coach Terry Bevington said a similar experience happened to him in the old wing of the Vinoy a few years back when he was managing the White Sox.

Given the huge role of travel in professional baseball, it’s not surprising that hotels like the Vinoy come to occupy a good deal of ballplayers’ imaginations.  Life on the road can be as empty and lonely as Wrigley Field in the post season.  Players – many of whom are superstitious about the game to begin with – pass the time by telling each other stories.  Skeptics would note that these tales sometimes grow taller with each retelling, as is often the case with folklore.  One can hear super-sized variations on these stories in clubhouses thousands of miles away:  Did you hear what happened to Bobby?  But that still doesn’t explain why so many players claim first-hand experiences at the Vinoy, or why these experiences are often similar, or just plain inexplicable.

Jay Gibbon’s encounter there still gives him the chills. In town with the Orioles one summer, Gibbons made a beeline for his room to catch some rest.  He set the alarm clock on the bedside table, then washed up and prepared for bed. As he reached for the lamp, he noticed the clock he’d just set was now off. He sat up to reset it and discovered the cord draped over the dresser with the prong resting over the clock. “It kind of freaked me out” says Gibbons, “because the outlet was near the floor. How the hell did the plug get from down there to the top of the dresser and just stay there? Because I didn’t even move the clock.”  It’s an incident Gibbons hasn’t forgotten.  “I haven’t turned the lights off since at that hotel!”

Gibbon’s teammate Brian Roberts was more amused than spooked by his own experience.  He was at the park when some dry cleaning was delivered to his room.  His girlfriend hung the clothes in the closet, then headed to the Trop to watch the game. When the pair returned late that night, the clothes were on the bed.  Roberts’ girlfriend stared in disbelief. She told Brian she distinctly remembered hanging them up. “Maybe the maid put ‘em out there,” he said. “The maid had already come through,” she replied.

“We just thought it was funny,” says Brian.  “We couldn’t figure out why in the world anyone would take the clothes out of the closet and put them on the bed. I still don’t know whether I believe in ghosts.”

For Devil Ray pitcher Jon Switzer, who had a startling experience his first night at the Vinoy, there is no doubt. Called up to the majors for the first time in his career, he and his wife Dana were staying on the fifth floor of the hotel when they awoke from a sound sleep to loud scratching on the wall behind the headboard of their bed. It sounded like a rat scratching from within the wall. The noise continued for a few minutes, then stopped suddenly. Fifteen minutes later, the scratching returned, so loudly that they sprung out of bed and turned on the bedside lamps.

It was at that moment Jon and Dana believed they saw the artwork hanging above their bed come to life. The painting depicted a garden scene with a woman in Victorian dress holding a basket with her right hand. According to John, her left hand, which had been by her chin, was now scratching the glass desperately to get out. The couple stared in disbelief for about three seconds, then raced out the door. “It was crazy because I never believed that kind of thing,” says Jon, “and then to see something like that firsthand was just strange. I guess that’s why they call it the supernatural.”

Vinoy stories have become so legendary that even some skeptics have started to scratch their heads.  When Scott Williamson was traded to Boston, his Red Sox teammates Kevin Millar and John Burkett razzed him about the story.  Then Burkett hopped on the Internet and found information about Benjamin Williamson once owning the property.  He came back to Scott’s locker white-faced. “You gotta be kidding me,” he told the pitcher.  Williamson could only smile.  “Coincidence or not, it’s hard to make up a story like that.”

Why would the Vinoy be haunted?  Stories abound of tragic fires, mysterious deaths, and lonely-hearts suicides, all alleged to have taken place in the hotel decades ago.  Velasquez heard that the hotel was once an army hospital and wonders if there aren’t “a lot of lost souls around there that have never left.” Gift shop workers (who report frequently finding store items broken or moved when they arrive in the morning) told Kandria Frascatore a Romeo-and-Juliet-type saga of star-crossed young lovers whose romance was forbidden by the adults around them.  They killed each other at the hotel, and now haunt its hallways and rooms.

But according to hotel historian Elaine Normaille, none of these events actually happened.  Nor could she substantiate any record of Benjamin Williamson dying on the property after he sold it, or staying there after he transferred ownership. Although a skeptic herself, Normaille recognizes that the place has become a magnet for paranormal groups who believe that the hotel is full of ghosts.

Just as the visiting team clubhouse at Tropicana Field is full of jumpy, bleary-eyed ballplayers in need of a good night’s sleep.