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    Spring training is hot ticket

    The Blue Jays, Phillies and Devil Rays have their mitts on bigger sales than last year.

    By LEON M. TUCKER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 15, 2001


    DUNEDIN -- John Kovac has a theory.

    The Clearwater resident, who says he loves baseball and tries to make every game, stood inside the concession area of Grant Field trying to explain the increase in attendance at Toronto Blue Jays spring training games this year.

    "I've seen an increase in the attendance, and all I can attribute that to is people saying, 'Hey, if we don't go to these games, they're going to leave,' " he said. "I think it's blackmail, personally."

    Whatever the reason, the Blue Jays, along with the Philadelphia Phillies and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, are on track to sell more tickets than they sold last year -- good news for team officials and fans who were once uncertain about the future of Major League Baseball and spring training in Pinellas County.

    At this time last year, the Blue Jays had sold about 38,500 tickets. So far this year, the team has sold 44,379 tickets.

    Some say such success is the result of the team's decision to stay put.

    Last year, the Blue Jays threatened to move their spring training operation elsewhere if the city couldn't strike a deal with the team.

    And despite some disagreement among residents who didn't think the city should spend the money, the city sprang into action. A last-minute deal was made, keeping the team in town for another 15 years with an option for an additional 10 years.

    "The fans feel more comfortable that we signed a 15-year agreement," said Ken Carson, director of Florida operations for the Blue Jays. "We are not a lame-duck business waiting around not knowing what will happen, which has a lot to do with it."

    The terms of the agreement show Dunedin will receive $3-million from the county and $6-million from the state to put toward the $12-million renovation of Grant Field and Englebert Complex. The remaining $3-million for the work will be split between the team and the city.

    Also, a recent influx of fans from Canada is evident at Grant Field.

    "You can tell usually when the national anthem is being sung and who is singing it," Carson said. "It gives you a good idea. I don't know how significant of a boost we are having, but I think there are more (Canadians in attendance) this year."

    Meanwhile, fans like Robert Sloboda have a different theory.

    "Baseball has gotten a little bit more popular lately," the Seminole resident said. "For a while, with the strike and higher salaries, people were a little disgruntled."

    The Phillies are projecting a 10 percent to 12 percent increase in spring training ticket sales compared with last year.

    Although the team is enjoying more success in the ticket office, other elements have come into play and affected their numbers, said John Timberlake, director of Florida operations for the Phillies.

    "We are ahead of last year marginally by about 4 or 5 percent," he said. "Unfortunately, because of the rain situation, we may not be as strong as we want to be. But barring any further rain, we're going to outdraw last year."

    Clearwater joined Dunedin in claiming some of the $75-million set aside by Florida legislators to fix up or replace aging stadiums around the state.

    In December, the Clearwater City Commission agreed to spend $14-million of state and county money for a new $22.7-million spring training stadium to be completed by 2003 for the Philadelphia Phillies. The team will kick in about $3-million to $5.7-million.

    In St. Petersburg, the Rays are seeing a steady increase in ticket sales compared with last spring.

    After six games last season, the Rays drew about 21,600. This year, the team has attracted about 25,700 fans.

    "Most likely, you can attribute it to the fact that we have a lot of young players that have gotten a lot of attention," said Rick Vaughn, vice president of public relations for the Devil Rays. "Our fans know this is the time they can get to see those players because they're not yet ready to play at the big league level."

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