WESLEY CHAPEL — The annual Governor’s Baseball Dinner in St. Petersburg has kicked off the Florida Grapefruit League’s spring training season dating back to the 1920s. But this is the first time Pasco County will send its own delegation.
Tourism Director Ed Caum said his office bought a table for next Thursday’s dinner at Tropicana Field, where the group will be able to hobnob with Hall of Famers and enjoy impersonations by comedian Frank Caliendo.
But the real value in the $1,500 table is that it gets Pasco’s new sports marketing specialist, Ronnie Lloyd, in the room with team owners and officials from across Major League Baseball who may be looking for a new spring training site. Pasco, fresh on the heels of signing a contract with Blue Marble Strategic to build a $34 -million baseball complex at Wiregrass Ranch, could have a brand new stadium and 19 fields by 2016.
“We want to make sure we’re in the room,” Caum said. “This will be the first time we’ve ever gone to something like this, but we’re going to be going to more sports authority meetings in Pinellas and Hillsborough now that we have a sports marketing person on staff.”
Blue Marble founder James Talton and Commission Chairman Jack Mariano will be key members of the delegation.
“I’m excited about going,” Mariano said. “It’s an opportunity to meet the folks who would be the decision makers and let’s see if we can make this thing happen.”
The massive project includes nine MLB regulation-sized fields and a stadium, plus 10 youth-sized fields. Talton said MLB teams need at least eight practice fields plus a stadium, so the Wiregrass site could easily accommodate those needs.
Spring training generates about $753 million a year in economic impact, according to the Florida Sports Commission. The Grapefruit League once hosted 20 MLB teams, but Florida has steadily lost teams to Arizona’s Cactus League. Since 1998, six teams — the Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, Chicago White Sox, Kansas City Royals, Los Angeles Dodgers and Texas Rangers — relocated to Arizona.
Last year, Gov. Rick Scott signed a law that pledges $20 million in state funding — or $50 million for a two-team facility — to keep more teams from bolting to Arizona. The Houston Astros have been in negotiations with Palm Beach Gardens for a new stadium, but the team has threatened to leave Florida.
The Toronto Blue Jays have also been shopping around for a new stadium when the team’s lease ends in 2017. The team has trained in Dunedin since it joined the league in 1977.
Talton said he has met or spoken with officials from teams that currently train in both Florida and Arizona, but now his primary focus is securing the $23 million in private financing to build the Wiregrass complex. Pasco County has earmarked $11 million. The Porter family, owners and developers of Wiregrass Ranch, donated the 120-acre site to the county for the complex.
Talton said the Wiregrass complex would have a close affiliation with MLB and the Florida Grapefruit League even if it doesn’t get a team. The main focus — and revenue source — for the project will be youth baseball and softball. He’s already starting to pre-book tournaments for 2016, and he said tournament directors can schedule visits to spring training games for visiting teams and players.
“As a one-of-a-kind, destination-focused sports facility, part of our program is to schedule field trips to other sporting venues, especially ones like MLB spring training games, to enhance the overall three-, four-, and seven-day events,” he said.
Talton projects that during spring training, the Wiregrass complex will average between 3,000 and 4,000 players and spectators — that’s an audience that could automatically boost the attendance of any team that relocates its spring training facility to Wesley Chapel.
“With that being said, an invitation to attend Governor Scott’s Grapefruit League celebration dinner is especially exciting for us,” he said. “We are looking forward to being a substantial contributor to the continued growth of MLB spring training in Florida and continuing discussions with some of the owners.”