The drive from Tampa International Airport to St. Petersburg, Fla., takes us across a long bridge over water that is flat and glassy. “Shhh,” I say to my wife, who’s riding shotgun. I push a button on my smartphone, and the inside of the rental car swells with ominous oboe tones and then a creepy chittering sound. Then more oboe. Then an extended undulating wail that sounds roughly like my grandmother realizing her favorite telenovela has been canceled.
So maybe playing the driving-to-the-horrible-haunted-hotel music from the beginning of The Shining is a heavy-handed start to a subtropical weekend. But here’s the thing: I have absolutely no pop in my bat or dip in my curve, so if I’m going to not enjoy myself at a hotel known to terrify baseball players, I’m probably going to have to put in some effort of my own.
We climb out of our car outside the Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort & Golf Club, the lodging chosen by most big league teams in town to play the Tampa Bay Rays. Contrary to its reputation, it doesn’t look particularly harrowing. For starters, it’s pink. But it is sprawling with Gothic touches and a tower, and the sky overhead is an eerie bruised purple. So I give the place the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the bed will jostle mysteriously in the middle of the night and there will be cryptic messages written in blood and — not to get greedy, but we did come all the way from New York — twin girl ghosts will skitter along the walls and ceiling.
As we check in, the desk clerk, John Gernenz, tells us of baseball players rushing downstairs in the middle of the night, stammering that they need a new room. It was a tweet from an obscure Miami Marlins relief pitcher that first sparked my interest in the hotel. “Can’t sleep,” wrote Steve Cishek. “My room is def haunted.” He also made reference to having soiled his pants.
Gernenz mostly blames baseball players’ superstitions for spreading the hotel’s haunted reputation, but he does allow that he’s “seen and heard things” himself. And I’m heartened to see that the hotel has a top-flight spooky history, albeit one of creepy abandonment. The Vinoy opened in 1925, but 50 years later it was abandoned and overtaken by vagrants, resulting in black-and-white photos of the building interior in dark squalor. In 1992, the hotel was reopened with a massive renovation, and six years later, the Rays — then known as the Devil Rays — had their inaugural season.
I learn the full scope of the horror while lying in bed in our room. I’m reading Haunted Baseball: Ghosts, Curses, Legends, and Eerie Events and Mickey Bradley, the author, devotes an entire chapter to ballplayers’ supernatural experiences at the Vinoy.
Former Cincinnati Reds reliever Scott Williamson saw “a guy with a coat” from a bygone era standing in the curtains staring at him. A Pittsburgh Pirates strength-and-pitching coordinator witnessed a “sandy-haired, blue-eyed man” standing in front of the window. A pitcher’s family was terrorized by faucets that kept turning off and on. Two Toronto Blue Jays relievers were spooked by flickering lights. Former Jays manager Cito Gaston chained the door shut, but it kept opening in the middle of the night. And then there was former Rays pitcher Jon Switzer, who swears the woman in the painting above his bed moved her hand as if attempting to claw her way out of the artwork’s frame.
And on and on, sort of like the “transaction” blotter in the sports pages. But instead of trades for players to be named later, it’s ballplayers getting their minds warped by incessant apparitions.
I do my duty as a husband and scrawl “Hello” and my wife’s name in condensation on the bathroom mirror, surreptitiously move her items around the room and slam a few drawers. But our night at the hotel is frustratingly delightful.
Despite my love of baseball, I’ve never been any good at it. So I conclude that some supernatural scouts have appraised my unathletic frame and pitiable hand-eye coordination and grumbled, while spitting sunflower seeds, that I am just not worth scaring.
But as we’re about to check out, my wife notices something. “Was the chair like that?” she asks.
Indeed, the office chair — used by neither of us — is now several feet away from the desk where it was previously tucked. We hastily pack our bags and race out of the room. I remind myself to book an hour at some batting cages to see if I might have some previously unnoticed talent.
Unless, of course, my wife was just messing with me.