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Local teams, local fans, big numbers

Eight of the 24 teams at this year's tournament are from the bay area, setting attendance expectations very high.

© St. Petersburg Times
published May 13, 2002

TAMPA -- If you listen closely, you can hear buses and cars rolling in from Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Dunedin, East Lake, New Port Richey and Crystal River.

Sounds a little something like this:


This year's state baseball playoffs begin today at Legends Field, and a decidedly local flavor is expected to provide a boon -- and bulging wallet -- like nothing the Florida High School Activities Association has experienced since moving the tournament to Tampa in 1997.

Face it -- the state's annual baseball party has been crashed by the Tampa Bay Area. Blanketed. Taken over. Dominated.

Twenty-four teams in six classifications play this week at the luxurious spring training home of the New York Yankees. Much to the delight of the FHSAA, eight of those teams are from the Bay Area, which means there are going to be plenty of $6 bills in the stands.

Six dollars is the admission price for those fans screaming, shrieking and encouraging the local nines.

With all gate receipts going to the FHSAA, the organizing body of Florida high school sports is more than happy to see the record number of local teams in the next five days.

"This is by far the most local teams in a state tournament that we've had in baseball," said Paul McLaughlin, the FHSAA's director of athletics for baseball and basketball.

With at least one local team in each class (and you could almost throw in Bartow, which is about an hour away), the Legends Field attendance record of 19,357 will be shortlived. Set last year, the record is expected to fall even before Chamberlain, East Lake and Bloomingdale take the field for their semifinals Friday night.

"I sure hope so," said Howard Grosswirth, the director of marketing for the Yankees and Legends Field. "We definitely count on that. We always look at the event as it gets closer and one of the factors we always look at is attendance and the number of local teams still alive."

In an effort to maximize attendance, the FHSAA scheduled all local teams for either a 5 p.m. or 8 p.m. semifinal, allowing many people to go to work or school that day and still show up.

"We wanted to showcase the kids as much as possible," McLaughlin said.

One factor that matters most for attendance is the participation of nearby schools.

In the five years since the state tournament arrived at Legends, the least attended tournament was 1998, the year Hillsborough County had no representatives and Gibbs was the only local team. In a strange twist, the final attendance that year was boosted by the appearance of Key West, which brought seven buses of fans from seven hours south.

By comparison, the most attended championship series was last year when the tournament featured four teams from Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, including nearby Tampa Catholic in the Class 3A final and Seminole, the No. 1 team in the nation.

"There are going to be people who don't go to regular-season games but see this great tournament with great parking at a great venue and they'll show up," McLaughlin said. "Adults and students both."

This year's tournament includes two teams from Hillsborough County (Bloomingdale and Chamberlain), which are expected to draw well, as well as Ridgewood (the top drawing team in Pasco) and Crystal River (which brought about 300 fans to its regional final in Eustis).

Pinellas schools Dunedin, East Lake, Clearwater Central Catholic and Northside Christian also have loyal followings.

Aside from parents and students from local schools, the tournament should also draw many casual fans due to the talent competing. Dunedin, Northside Christian, CCC, Miami Southridge and Florida Christian are ranked in the top 25 nationally in either Baseball America, or USA Today, and Oviedo will be after ousting nationally-ranked Apopka and Lake Mary.

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