Heading south on Douglas Avenue, Florida Auto Exchange Stadium — the Toronto Blue Jays’ spring training home — seems incongruous among the street’s old bungalows.
But baseball and the Blue Jays are big parts of the town’s identity — especially this time of year.
“They have become part of the fabric and the landscape of the community,” said Dunedin Mayor Dave Eggers.
Spring training games in Florida’s Grapefruit League begin today, with teams training in 14 cities across Florida, six of them between Lakeland and Sarasota. Baseball is a longstanding tradition in the region, where Tampa is celebrating 100 years of exhibition games this year and Pinellas County will mark that milestone next year.
But hosting a Major League Team, as Dunedin has since the Blue Jays franchise began in 1976, seems especially significant in a place like this, where the pace of life is a little more relaxed and Main Street is lined with eclectic local shops and restaurants.
“We love Dunedin,” said Blue Jays senior adviser Ken Carson. “The city has always been great for us.”
You don’t have to go far to find signs of local pride in the Blue Jays. A large placard on the western edge of downtown touts Dunedin as the team’s spring training home. There’s even a Blue Jay Grocery and Deli here.
This time of year, outdoor seating areas at Main Street restaurants are flooded with telltale powder-blue garb and Blue Jays ball caps and Canadian accents waft through the air, whether ordering lunch or discussing the team’s new lineup.
Though no one has calculated the economic impact of spring training here, it’s clear the Blue Jays bring a lot of people to Dunedin.
The team is such a draw that the chamber of commerce has trouble keeping its visitor information center stocked with game schedules, even though it orders hundreds before spring training starts.
Local restaurants see a massive influx of business when the team is in town.
“We get really excited when we see there are a lot of home games,” said Tina Marie Avila, owner of Casa Tina and Pan y Vino, two restaurants that sit side by side in the heart of the Main Street district. The timing of the games is perfect, because the games let out about 4 p.m., and fans walk or drive over from the stadium for fish tacos and beer.
“So we get this huge crowd of people coming in right at the time when you don’t have any business,” Avila said.
The Blue Jays play the Detroit Tigers in Lakeland on Saturday, and the team hosts its first home game Sunday, against the Baltimore Orioles. The team is scheduled to play 16 games in Dunedin this year.
The team’s economic impact here is unparalleled compared with bigger cities with more than one sports team, Eggers said.
“The Yankees to Tampa probably aren’t the same thing as the Blue Jays are to Dunedin,” he said.
The team was a big factor in why Don Mahood and his wife, who are from London, Ontario, decided to spend their winters in Dunedin.
“That’s a big part of it,” Mahood said Thursday as he watched the team practice at a facility 3 miles from the stadium. “I come here pretty much every day.”
Jen and Matt Lensink, both 26, drove down from the Toronto area, along with a group of relatives that includes their 13-month-old son, to see the team and its new collection of highly regarded free agent acquisitions.
“Everyone in Toronto’s pretty excited about the team this year,” Matt Lensink said. “All the money and the trades they spent in the off-season — we’re pretty pumped.”
That promise has attracted unprecedented attention this year. On Thursday, fans sporting team colors gathered at the practice facility for close-up glimpses of the players and, just maybe, autographs. Staff members from Canadian media outlets, including a Toronto City News mobile broadcast van, milled about.
“There’s never been higher media attention,” Carson said.
Some locals say the annual influx of visitors does have one downside: traffic. Drive from one side of town to another, and you’ll see more than one Ontario license plate.
“You’ve got people around at all times,” said resident Chris Hoban.
But the economic impact makes the inconvenience worthwhile, he said.
Eggers likens the city’s relationship with the team to a marriage — and it has included rocky spells over the years.
“We’ve had negotiating moments in our history,” the mayor said. “It can get contentious.”
The team’s contract with the city expires in 2017. But, so far, team officials are satisfied with the status quo, Carson said. “If we were on the low end of the totem pole as far as facilities were concerned, I think we’d have to look at other places.”
Texas native Chad Beck, a relief pitcher for the team’s Triple-A affiliate, said the waterfront and restaurants such as the Ozona Pig make the Dunedin area an attractive place to gear up for a long season.
“I love coming here for spring training,” he said. “It’s good people and good times.”