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Hit-and-run for spring training

The Devil Rays have signed a deal to make the Charlotte Sports Park near Port Charlotte their preseason training home beginning with the 2009 baseball season.

Published September 20, 2006

PORT CHARLOTTE — The Tampa Bay Devil Rays have sunk to rock-bottom in the Major Leagues, losing nine out of their last 10 games.

But as the Devil Rays officially named Charlotte County their future spring training home on Wednesday morning, Little Leaguers cheered, county commissioners beamed, and the collective feeling was this: Wait ’til the year after the year after next year.

“It’s still extremely exciting,” said Ian Kemp, 42, a real estate agent who plans to buy spring training season tickets, and whose 10-year-old son came to the news conference sporting the jersey of former Ray Aubrey Huff.

Beginning in spring 2009, the Devil Rays will hold spring training at Charlotte Sports Park near Port Charlotte, about 75 miles south of St. Petersburg. The county hosted spring training for the Texas Rangers from 1987 to 2004.

The team’s announcement was applauded by Charlotte County dignitaries and baseball fans on Wednesday morning with almost as much enthusiasm as St. Petersburg greeted its new team nine losing seasons ago.

“They’re just going to be better, do better next time,” said Logan Wilkes, 9, a fourth-grader from Port Charlotte who came to the announcement with his father and brother.

Maybe everyone’s happy because the last thing that got rerouted away from Tampa Bay and toward Port Charlotte was Hurricane Charley. Or maybe it’s this simple calculation: Some baseball is better than no baseball.

“Where else are the sounds of baseball?” said Charlotte County Commission Chairman Tom Moore. “It sounds kind of trite, but you’ve got to sit out there and hear that ball. It is a magical thing, and our people miss it.”

Some Charlotte County hoteliers opposed the move, because a series of stadium improvements will be partly financed though a 1-cent addition to the tourism tax.

But the Devil Rays and Charlotte County commissioners believe the move will be good for the team and the county. And for his part, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker has not objected.

The team sees the move as a way to increase its field of fans, said Michael Kalt, senior vice president for development and business affairs.

The new location combines practice fields and the stadium at one site, but asked if a similar complex in St. Petersburg would have kept the team in Pinellas County for the spring seasons, Kalt said, “Honestly, probably not.”

Playing spring training and regular season games within blocks of each other “was duplicative,” Kalt said. This move will encourage more people south of Tampa Bay to become Rays fans, he said, while preserving the team’s fan base in Tampa Bay.

The Rays management on Wednesday gave a $5,000 check to a local summer camp program as a sign of its intention to benefit the local community.

Commission Chairman Moore said he believes the Devil Rays are committed to helping with other community projects, far more so than the Rangers did.

Officials said they believed the Rays’ presence would boost tourism, in addition to helping them create an improved ballpark for year-round use. A county study said the impact could be as much as $26-million, although some economists say governments overestimate the dollar value of sports teams.

And as to that losing record?

It doesn’t bother Charlotte Commissioners Tom D’Aprile and Matt DeBoer, who grew up on Long Island and can remember the days when the New York Mets were miserable. Now they’re tops in the National League.

“We’re patient, we like nurturing ball teams,” DeBoer said.

[Last modified September 20, 2006, 22:19:52]

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