DUNEDIN — As the Toronto Blue Jays begin their 37th spring training season today, hope that the team will keep training in Dunedin is as prevalent as hope that it will go far in the upcoming Major League Baseball season.
It has been a rocky year for Dunedin, where city leaders have tried to persuade team executives to renew the Jays’ contract to play at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium on Douglas Avenue when it expires in 2017. The Blue Jays have held spring training here every year since the team’s inception and have become what many consider part of the fabric of the small community in northern Pinellas County. Now, says Dunedin Mayor Dave Eggers, things are looking up for Dunedin and the Jays.
“I think the state of baseball in Dunedin is good,” Eggers said.
He said the city is “starting to get more signals” that the team might stay in Dunedin than it did nearly a year ago, when team executives complained about a lack of amenities and the nearly 4-mile commute between Englebert Park — the team’s practice fields — and Florida Auto Exchange Stadium.
Last year the state Legislature, in an attempt to keep teams that train in Florida from relocating to Arizona — half of Major League Baseball’s 30 teams train in each state — approved money for cities to use to upgrade spring training facilities or build new ones.
Dunedin officials are expected to meet with the team to discuss ways to make the facility more suitable, Eggers said.
“It’s certainly not a done deal,” Eggers said. “But I think that they realize there are an awful lot of pluses with staying here in Dunedin.”
That includes a number of teams that train nearby: the Philadelphia Phillies are in Clearwater; the New York Yankees train in Tampa; the Detroit Tigers have spring training in Lakeland; the Baltimore Orioles are in Sarasota; and the Pittsburgh Pirates have a facility in Bradenton.
Having a solid base of winter visitors who are Blue Jays fans in Dunedin also is an advantage, city officials say.
“I’ve been coming (to Dunedin) for years. I do like coming to a Blue Jays game if possible — if I don’t have to go too far to get to it,” Fred Anderson said.
He and his wife, Sheila, live in Quelph, Ontario, and spend winters in Dunedin. On Wednesday they were at the stadium’s box office to buy tickets for an upcoming game. They don’t envision driving across Florida to catch a spring training game; nor would they relocate to follow the team’s spring training exploits.
“We like it here,” Fred Anderson said. “We know where we’re going.”
Last summer word spread that the team might move its spring training operation across the state to a facility it would share with the Houston Astros in Palm Beach Gardens. The proposal died when residents from the surrounding area fought it.
Palm Beach County officials since have said the Jays have backed out altogether, and the Palm Beach Post newspaper reported the Astros are talking with the Washington Nationals about a possible joint facility in Lake Worth, which also is in Palm Beach County.
Dunedin’s stadium doesn’t comply with the ideal image of a modern major league spring training park. It’s not a gleaming facility, with adjacent training fields and facilities, surrounded by parking spaces and set beside a major roadway.
It is in a residential area lined with small streets. There are few parking spaces, and some of those are on grass. The stadium is surrounded by blocks of small bungalows, a library, a senior center, an elementary school and mom-and-pop businesses.
Regardless, many people in Dunedin see it as a crucial part of the neighborhood and the city as a whole.
Cindy Phillips owns Blue Plate Cafe, a small restaurant directly across from the stadium. She said business gets “crazy” for the duration of spring training, which partly is why she chose her location last year. She said she worried when talk circulated of the team’s possible departure and is relieved it appears more likely the Jays will stay.
“We are all elated, I think, in the city of Dunedin,” she said. “The Blue Jays bring a lot financially. Their contributions to our community are outstanding. Their fans are wonderful, and we look forward to having (a relationship of) many, many years ... with the Blue Jays.”