In 1986, Orlando had no arena, a rinky-dink airport and about 150,000 year-round residents.
But, Pat Williams had a dream.
Three years later, the Orlando Magic tipped off its first NBA season, the historical beginnings of major league-level sports in Central Florida.
Williams is now dreaming a new dream so strong it pulled him out of retirement.
He gathered his friends in the local media — through the Magic and the dozens of books he’s written, he’s made a lot of them — Wednesday to rally support for a Major League Baseball franchise in Orlando.
He doesn’t have an actual team yet, or an ownership group, or a stadium or its location yet — he just has a dream. And he wants the baseball fans in the area to join in his vision as an Orlando Dreamer, and join his team.
If you’re passionate about bringing major-league ball to Central Florida, he wants you to go to the website, OrlandoDreamers.com, read about the group’s plans, and log on as a supporter.
“Orlando keeps growing, and sports needs to be a part of that. The next logical step is for Orlando to become a Major League Baseball city,” he said. “The most important thing now is finding out how badly Central Florida wants to do this.”
Williams has tried this push in Orlando twice before, in 1991 and 1995, when Major League Baseball chose Miami and Tampa Bay for new franchises.
“I’ll say this as sweet as I can: they’ve tried it and it hasn’t worked in either city. Orlando is a different market, a special market.”
Orlando now has a Major League Soccer franchise, a big-time college football presence and hosts PGA and LPGA golf events, which makes it similar to the Tampa Bay area — which, by coincidence has the Tampa Bay Rays, whose recent on-field success hasn’t been matched at the turnstiles. Talks of a new stadium deal are just talk and have no substance. Chatter locally is of luring that team to Central Florida if MLB expansion doesn’t happen.
What Orlando and Central Florida don’t have is a track record of success in pro baseball. Orlando and its suburbs hosted pro minor league teams most years from 1919 to 2003, mostly at Tinker Field in downtown Orlando. Those teams were never huge draws and lagged behind their Class AA Southern League or Class A Florida State League counterparts.
Williams stressed that this is merely a first step in a process, like the one he embarked on 33 years ago that led to the building of the old Orlando Arena and the forming of the Magic.
So, while this may be a long shot for various reasons … well, if anybody can pull it of, Pat Williams can, because he’s done it once before.
“What’s pertinent now is, if we get the response we’re hoping for, then we’ll keep plowing forward,” he said. “Convince ourselves we can do this, and then spread that message deep with Major League Baseball that something special is going on down here.”
Williams, who retired as a Magic vice president in April and has beaten back myeloma cancer of the bone marrow in recent years, said a couple things got his competitive juices flowing again: he heard Major League Baseball talk about possibly expanding by two teams, and what some suggested markets were: Montreal, Portland, Vancouver, Charlotte, Las Vegas and Nashville
“No offense to them, but when I read that my competitive blood rose,” he said. “Orlando is the 18th largest media market in the country, the largest without baseball, and 80 million annual visitors. If 2 percent of them come to a game that’s 1.6 million people.”
The Rays have a lease to play in Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg through 2027. Williams’ gathering Wednesday raised some eyebrows at that end of Interstate 4 and on clogged I-275.
“We are proud of our strong fan support in Orlando, and we’re pleased to see their enthusiasm about Major League Baseball,” the team said in a statement on Twitter by mid-day Wednesday.