Before I left for Afghanistan in mid-March, I drove across Florida from my home in Tampa to my parents’ home in Melbourne. Along the way, on Florida State Road 520, just outside of Cocoa, Florida, I saw the remains of what was once the home of the Florida State League’s Cocoa Astros, the spring home of the Houston Astros, and for a season, the spring home of the then-Florida Marlins. Sadly, even at 55 mph, it was apparent the Cocoa Expo Sports Complex had seen better days.
Built in 1964, the Cocoa Expo Sports Complex was designed to host baseball, soccer, and other sports on its outdoor fields; basketball, volleyball, and other indoor sports in its indoor complex; and events such as the Florida State Fair in its exhibition hall. The 40-acre complex was supposed to be the premier multi-use event center in Brevard County.
And for many years it was. Shortly after the facility opened, the Houston Astros moved from Apache Junction, Arizona to the Cocoa Expo Sports Complex for spring training and made it the new home of their Florida State League affiliate, the Cocoa Astros. In 1972, the Cocoa Astros moved to Dubuque, Iowa, then to Cedar Rapids, then came back to Cocoa in 1977, before moving throughout Florida from 1982 to 2000 and then finding their current home in the Carolina League as the Lancaster Jethawks.
In 1985, the big league Astros joined their minor league affiliate in departing the Cocoa Expo Sports Complex when they claimed the facility was “rundown” and told the City of Cocoa to pay for the renovations. After the city balked, claiming renovation had to be paid for by the Astros organization, the City of Kissimmee swooped in and lured the Astros and their minor league team an hour west.
After the Astros moved, a private ownership group bought the Cocoa Expo, put their own money into fixing it, and hosted various professional baseball-related events such as the Joe Brinkman Umpire School (1985-1998) and and an academy run by former Brevard County standout and current Major League manager Clint Hurdle. The facility also continued to host many amateur events.
On a personal note, I had a chance to play in one of the many amateur events during my final year of Little League in 1992. A few weeks after our season was over, my then-coach called to ask me if I wanted to participate in an exhibition against a team of traveling Brazilian teens. Never one to turn down the ability to play, I accepted. Although I don’t remember the final score, I remember the Brazilian team being very good and their pitcher throwing very fast, faster than most American kids my age. If I remember correctly, I went 0 for 2 with a strikeout and ground out.
A year after I played there, the Cocoa Expo Sports Complex hosted to its final professional baseball team. In 1993, the then-Florida Marlins played their first season in the Grapefruit League at the Cocoa Expo as they awaited the completion of Space Coast Stadium. Unlike the Astros however, the Marlins only used the complex for its stadium as they practiced and worked out in neighboring Viera adjacent to Space Coast Stadium on the fields of the Carl Barger Complex. Following the Marlins temporary residence, the complex still hosted amateur baseball, basketball, volleyball, and soccer tournaments, gun shows, and the state fair.
Unfortunately, time and the poor economy caught up to the Cocoa Expo Sports Complex. According to recent reports, in June 2011 the complex was foreclosed and seized by its main lender. After months of vacancy, with chains and locks and a sign announcing the foreclosure on the gates, new owners bought the complex and began $40 million dollars in repairs with the intent of making the complex a destination for amateur baseball, basketball, and volleyball teams from around the country. The new ownership attempted to open parts of the complex in March 2012 for a baseball tournament, but faced a wide array of complaints that the fields and facilities were unsafe and that the venue was “an open construction site”.
Will there ever be professional baseball at the Cocoa Expo Sports Complex again? Highly doubtful for three reasons. First and foremost, that doesn’t seem to be the intent of the new ownership. Second, while the complex might one day be suitable for college and amateur training and showcases, the main stadium needs far too many improvements to be considered a viable Florida State League destination. And third, and with Space Coast Stadium, home of the Brevard County Manatees since 1994, only 15 minutes south on I-95, I doubt there is any interest from a Minor League Baseball to place another team in the area.
Professional baseball history is also not on the side of the Cocoa Expo Sports Complex. Only once since 1941 has more than one team called Brevard County home. In 1972 the Cocoa Astros were joined by the four teams of the Florida East Coast Rookie League teams, the also-named Cocoa Astros, the Cocoa Expos, and the Melbourne Twins and Melbourne Reds. After one season, the Florida East Coast Rookie League folded and was never heard from again.
With their recent black eye and bad press, the new ownership of the Cocoa Expo Sports Complex might want to wait until the renovations are completely finished before opening the facility to the public. Until then, however, the Cocoa Expo Sports Complex will be devoid of all baseball and sit as a sad decrepit reminder of Cocoa, Florida’s minor league past.
Here is a recent video of the Cocoa Expo Sports Complex uploaded to youtube in February 2012:
Image acquired from ballparkreviews.com.