The pitcher in the plush bed in his posh room at the Vinoy saw a faint light coming from near the pool outside. Scott Williamson of the Cincinnati Reds felt an odd, tingling sensation buzz through his body, almost as if he was being watched. He rolled onto his stomach, and all of a sudden it felt like somebody was sitting on his back, making it difficult to breathe.
He managed to flip over, and in his room, standing by the curtains, was a man wearing an "old-fashioned" coat and top hat who looked like he belonged in the 1920s or '30s.
"He was just looking right at me," Williamson said. "It was almost like he was trying to get a point across to me or something. I jumped up and turned on the lights, but he was gone.
"That place is haunted," he concluded.
This was in 2003.
Next to town were the Pittsburgh Pirates.
"I heard something in my room," strength coach Frank Velasquez said. "I look up and there was someone standing behind the desk and in front of the window looking at me. Just looking at me. Staring at me. I kind of turned my head and closed my eyes and then looked back. It was still there, but it was a person, a man."
He had on khaki pants and a formal, white, long-sleeved shirt, buttoned up to the neck. "He looked like he was from a long time ago," Velasquez said.
Spring training and the start of another baseball season is an apt time to address the reputation of St. Petersburg's finest hotel as one of the most haunted on the major league circuit.
People can say what they want. They can say Williamson and Velasquez were tired or seeing things or are just telling silly, spooky fibs. But the two of them know what they saw.
• • •
The Vinoy is a first-class, pastel-pink waterfront hotel. Its rooms go for about $300 a night. Since it opened in 1925, it has hosted presidents and pop stars, soldiers in World War II — then, for a dormant 20 or so years, vagrants and vandals and who knows who or what else.
"There is a woman who floats through the hallways of the fifth floor," said Deborah Frethem, author of Ghost Stories of St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Pinellas County.
The first sighting of the woman was in late 1926. Maybe it's the developer's wife, who died after her husband allegedly pushed her down some stairs, or maybe it's the maid who saw it happen and then disappeared mysteriously before a murder trial could happen.
People have seen figures in the tower at the top of the hotel even though it's kept locked. Rocking chairs rock themselves. Buckets of paint get knocked off scaffolding and spatter walls on their own. Water turns itself on and off. The Syfy channel's Ghost Hunters did a show in 2008 from the Vinoy, revealing some sporadic, unspecified bumps in the dark.
"Like the great hotel itself," Frethem wrote in her book, "they seem to be in the business of welcoming people to St. Petersburg."
"The Vinoy," said Mickey Bradley, author of the 2007 book Haunted Baseball, "is one of a number of hotels that ballplayers say are haunted. The Vinoy is probably the top one."
• • •
Velasquez wasn't the only Pirates coach who had something happen on that trip in 2003. The hitting coach closed and locked his door, then woke up with it wide open. The bullpen coach swears an old dime dropped from the ceiling when he was taking a shower.
Players and coaches from other teams have had lights in their rooms that wouldn't stop flickering. They've put clothes in the closet and then found them on the bed, had their alarm clocks unplugged and TV channels changed, had covers pulled off as they slept.
"Maybe," Frethem said, "it's just a mischievous spirit in the Vinoy who wants to hassle visiting baseball players to help out the Rays."
The early Rays were woeful. Over the last few seasons, though, the team has become a perennial playoff contender. Most baseball experts point to savvy men in the front office, a smart manager in the dugout and better players on the field. But who knows? The Rays, after all, play in the same division as the mighty, money-rich Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. Every little bit helps.
In 2008, when the Rays played the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series, the Phillies stayed at the Vinoy. Catcher Carlos Ruiz woke up at midnight to a knock on his door. He got up and opened it. Nobody was there. Nobody at the door. Nobody in the hallway. He spent the rest of the night with his lights on and the TV blaring because he was afraid to be alone in the dark.
• • •
Here's where the third base coach throws up his hands and halts the chugging runner headed for home.
"Ballplayers tend to be very superstitious guys," said Bradley, the Haunted Baseball author. "In baseball, on any given day, the worst team in the league can beat the best team in the league. A great hitter can go on an 0-for-32 slump. Baseball players get used to the idea that things happen in their game that can't be explained by logic."
"I'm convinced these reports are true," Frethem said. "So many of them have had similar details. That lends veracity to them."
"I think the stories are significant whether they're true or not," Bradley said. "There's a rich oral culture in baseball of sharing these stories. I don't see that stopping anytime soon."
• • •
If rolling eyes have a sound, they sound like this: "We provide lodging, we provide accommodations, and we try to do that in a nice, peaceful environment." That's Vinoy general manager Russ Bond. "I can't control what people think or believe.
"It's old news," he added.
Some would say that's the thing about ghosts.
But it keeps happening.
Last June, the Marlins of Miami were in town, and pitcher Steve Cishek tweeted the following wee-hours alert: "Currently c------- my pants . . . Can't sleep . . . My room is def haunted."
He heard "what sounded like a bar of soap" fall in the shower, he said later. He checked the bathroom. Not a thing.
Another Marlins pitcher phoned his friend Joel Peralta of the Rays and asked if he could come stay at Peralta's house.
"He was scared," Peralta said. "He said, 'If I can't stay at your house, I'm going to rent a room in another hotel.'
"He believes in that stuff," Peralta explained.
Peralta had stayed there before as a member of a visiting team.
"I'm not staying there now," he said.
He has a choice. The visiting teams don't. Opening Day is April 6.
News researcher Caryn Baird and staff writer Marc Topkin contributed to this report, which used information from the Boston Herald, the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Bucks County (Pa.) Courier Times and "Haunted Baseball." Michael Kruse can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8751. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkruse.
Editor's note: This story has been edited to reflect the following correction: The Yankees are not staying at the Vinoy opening weekend. A story in the Floridian, which is printed in advance, was incorrect.