tampabay.com

Still home to a rite of spring

Pinellas spring training is a love affair of fans, teams and the county.

By DEMORRIS A. LEE
Published March 25, 2007


DUNEDIN - Ticket hawkers stood at the corner of Dunedin's Douglas Avenue and Beltrees Street last week, offering discounts to see the Blue Jays' Frank Thomas and the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez.

The smoke from sausage dogs and onions permeated the air. By noon, baseball fans, with kids in hand, hurried to get to their seats at Knology Park to hear the first crack of bat to ball.

The ritual is endangered in other parts of Florida. The Los Angeles Dodgers are pulling up stakes from Vero Beach after 50 years. And St. Petersburg is losing its status as spring training host to the Devil Rays.

But North Pinellas baseball fans can rest assured that their local spring training teams are here for a while. Both the Philadelphia Phillies, who train and play in Clearwater, and the Toronto Blue Jays in Dunedin have decade-long contracts to keep their spring training teams in Pinellas County.

"This is the only spring training home we've known," said Jason Diplock, vice president of Florida Operations for the Blue Jays. "We have a good relationship with Dunedin and certainly have no intentions of leaving."

Baseball fans elsewhere aren't so lucky. The Dodgers have announced they'll move to Glendale, Ariz., in 2009. And the Devil Rays are headed south to Charlotte County in 2009, to the park where the Texas Rangers' held spring training before heading to Surprise, Ariz., in 2002.

And in Tallahassee, some lawmakers are increasingly ambivalent about lucrative government subsidies aimed at keeping pro sports in communities - saying it amounts to corporate welfare for multimillion-dollar enterprises.

But the believers and the fans keep pitching the economic allure of spring training: Every year for six weeks, thousands of baseball fans come to Florida for spring training. Thus far this season, nearly 1.6-million fans have attended a spring training game.

Nick Gandy, of the Florida Sports Foundation, the sports promotion and development organization for the state, said each of the 18 major league teams playing in Florida generates $25- to $30-million to that area's local economy.

"The tradition behind (spring training) is second to none," Gandy said. "People do come to Florida just for spring training."

Ross Davies, 78, has been coming to Pinellas County for 13 years, following the Blue Jays. He lives about a 100 miles outside of Toronto. "I love this park," Davies said. "They could extend the roof some for more shade, but it's absolutely a great park and a great area."

Earlier this week, two state legislators presented a bill that would require statewide voter approval before any sports team could receive a sales tax subsidy, as is currently proposed for both the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Marlins. Both Clearwater and Dunedin have used millions of local tax-payers dollars in recent years on spring training.

In 2004, Clearwater and the Phillies unveiled a $32-million baseball park at the corner of Drew Street and U.S. 19. It was financed with $12-million from the Phillies; $7-million each from the state and Pinellas County; and about $5-million from the city. Clearwater owns the facility and is in the fourth year of a 20-year agreement with the Phillies.

The city of Dunedin facilitated a $14-million upgrade of the Blue Jay facility in 2000 with the state spending $7-million and $3-million coming from the county's tourist tax fund. The Blue Jays and the city divided the remaining cost. Dunedin has a 15-year contract that it signed in 2000.

As part of the deal, host cities and Pinellas County also receive free advertising in the teams' home markets. Lee Daniel, assistant director with the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention & Business Bureau, said the county gets at least $600,000 in Philadelphia and $300,000 in Toronto in TV advertising.

"The month of March is cold and snowy in Philadelphia and Toronto," Daniel said. "To turn on the TV and see a spring training game being broadcast from Dunedin or Clearwater has an image value."

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 445-4174 or dalee@sptimes.com.