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Tuesday, Sep 02, 2014

Florida’s fear of losing spring training teams could cost Dunedin

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Behind the push to lure the Toronto Blue Jays from Dunedin to Palm Beach Gardens for spring training is a fear that Florida could lose at least some of its East Coast teams to Arizona.

Three of the four Major League Baseball teams training on the East Coast the St. Louis Cardinals, Miami Marlins and New York Mets – have clauses in their leases allowing them to leave if the number of nearby teams drops below four. The fourth team, the Washington Nationals, has a lease that expires in 2017 for a relatively dated stadium in Viera.

That means if any of the teams that trains south of Viera along the Interstate 95 corridor decides to bolt, others could follow – possibly to Arizona, which has been poaching Florida teams since the 1990s.

This session, state lawmakers eager to stop that trend are discussing whether to create a fund aimed at keeping teams in Florida. The program would provide $20 million in state money to cities building facilities for a single team and $50 million for a two-team facility, according to proposed legislation.

Whether cities such as Dunedin are abandoned doesn’t seem to matter.

“We do not want them going to Arizona,” said John Webb, president of the Florida Sports Commission. “That’s the bottom line.”

Days after Gov. Rick Scott announced he wanted to earmark money for spring training, Blue Jays officials announced they were unhappy with the facilities in Dunedin, where the team has trained since its inception in 1977. Soon after, details emerged about a plan to lure the Blue Jays, whose lease expires at the end of 2016, to Palm Beach Gardens, along with the Houston Astros, whose lease in Kissimmee runs out the same year.

The “out” clauses that allow teams to leave before their leases expire have gained popularity in the past decade or so, said Fritz Polite, a professor of sports management at the University of Tennessee.

“They are at leisure to create contracts that will allow them to get out if something were to come up that’s not feasible there,” he said. “Most of them will not sign without a relocation clause. They always keep that leverage piece there.”

Officials from East Coast cities say they’re not targeting teams from the other side of the state, where nine teams train; they just want more teams to solidify their own spring training economies.

“If we could get two or more teams back on this side, that would be ideal,” said Mike Bauer, the general manager of Roger Dean stadium in Jupiter, the state’s only two-team facility, home to the Cardinals and Marlins.

Florida used to own spring training, but its grip on teams has eroded over the years, thanks to Arizona’s aggressive recruitment. Now, baseball’s 30 teams are evenly split between the states.

The East Coast has lost about half a dozen teams to Arizona and Florida’s West Coast over the past 20 years, including the New York Yankees, which left Fort Lauderdale for Tampa in the mid-1990s, and the Los Angeles Dodgers, which left “Dodgertown” in Vero Beach in 2008.

“Florida East Coast spring training isn’t in peril because fans aren’t coming or facilities are inferior,” said Chuck Fountain, a journalism professor at Boston’s Northeastern University and author of “Under the March Sun: the Story of Spring Training.”

“It is in peril because so few teams are left there.”

The funding mechanism being considered by the Legislature opens the door for building more two-team facilities, which cut down on costs and travel time for teams.

“I think what you’ll see is that a two-team facility is the smart way to go,” said Brian Ballard, the Tallahassee lobbyist who represents the Blue Jays, Astros and the city of Palm Beach Gardens.

Eight of the 15 teams that train in the Phoenix area double up, providing a greater concentration of teams and potentially shorter commute times.

All but one of Florida’s stadiums are built for a single team, but commute times are still relatively short. In the Tampa Bay area, for example, the longest trip is less than 90 minutes, between the Detroit Tigers’ home in Lakeland and Sarasota, where the Baltimore Orioles train.

“Tampa Bay still has a good core of teams, with the Phillies and Yankees in the immediate area and the Orioles and Pirates a little south and the Tigers just a little to the east,” Fountain said. “Should the Yankees ever be struck with wanderlust, however, all bets are off.”

Losing one team may not spell the end for spring training in the Tampa Bay area, but it would be a blow to Dunedin. The team is a big part of the town’s identity and economy, with many Canadians wintering there in February and March.

Mayor Dave Eggers said he was shocked to learn secondhand – that the team might be leaving for Palm Beach Gardens.

City leaders hope to negotiate with the team, but Eggers said Blue Jays President Paul Beeston only started returning his calls on Tuesday to set up a meeting. The city has sought help from stakeholders throughout the area in its efforts to keep the team but has yet to unveil a plan.

“We can’t come up with a concrete plan without knowing what their needs and wants are,” Eggers said.

The team has complained about the 3-mile distance between the stadium and the practice field something the city may have trouble remedying because of the lack of available land.

Those who have seen this before say the team could simply be posturing to get more out of Dunedin.

“The owners, they really have all the power,” said Polite. “They always pit one city against another.”

Blue Jays team officials are due in Florida next month, when they are scheduled to meet with city officials in Dunedin and Palm Beach Gardens, Eggers said.

“Where there’s smoke there can be fire, but where there’s smoke there can also be smoke,” he said. “I don’t want to assume they’ve already signed a contract and they’re leaving.”

Many cities might be inclined to appease teams that threaten to leave because they’re worried about luring the next team.

“One of the reasons I think local governments have been so docile about this is that they want to recruit teams to replace the departing ones and want to be seen as receptive to a ball club’s desires,” Fountain said. “Which has not given them much leverage in negotiations.”


kbradshaw@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-7999

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