Their situation in Dunedin no longer up to par, the Toronto Blue Jays will use the next 12 months to shop for a new spring training home, and may consider sharing a facility with the Washington Nationals or Houston Astros.
The Jays’ lease on Florida Auto Exchange Stadium expires in 2017, the Astros’ on Osceola County Stadium in Kissimmee in 2016, and the Nationals’ on Space Coast Stadium in Viera in 2017. As well, the New York Mets are looking for a partner in Port St. Lucie. It would be a two-year process for approvals and construction if the Jays decide to move into a new location.
Possible destinations could include Naples, Fort Myers and Pasco County on the Gulf Coast; Vero Beach, Daytona Beach and Palm City on the East Coast. The Dodgers trained in Vero Beach for 60 years before moving to Arizona.
Geography will be an important criterion, as major-league clubs prefer to minimize the time required to travel for Grapefruit League games.
Acknowledging that the Blue Jays will “assess our options,” club president Paul Beeston said numerous proposals over the years haven’t tempted a move and “in a perfect world” the team would remain in Dunedin, a town located slightly to the northwest of Tampa.
However, while sentimentality is a factor after 37 years, team operations are compromised by the logistics in Dunedin. The stadium, with club offices, is separated from the Bobby Mattick minor-league training centre by about six kilometres, requiring players to be bused back-and-forth. Beeston said the integrity of baseball operations will be the primary consideration in the decision about a future spring-training site.
“We’ve been in Dunedin from the beginning [in 1977] and it hasn’t impeded us from being successful,” Beeston emphasized in a telephone conversation from Toronto. “Having said that, it’s not an ideal situation from the player-development perspective, with the separate complexes.”
The club’s long-time Florida operations manager, Ken Carson, now semi-retired, says Dunedin simply lacks the land required to house a modern operation.
The stadium itself is long past its best-before date despite renovations in 2002. Rather than generating goodwill from sun-kissed vacationers at the Yankees-Jays game on Sunday, the stadium tested it.
There were cramped souvenir shops, long washroom lineups, concession stands without views of the field, and a desperate lack of stadium parking.
Anecdotal evidence suggests Ontario vacationers and snowbirds are migrating southward along the Gulf Coast, making Naples and Fort Myers logical destinations. Fort Myers is already host to the Minnesota Twins and Boston Red Sox, while nearby Naples is without a team. From Naples, a two-hour jaunt across Alligator Alley would bring the Jays within reach of the Marlins, Cardinals, Mets and in the future, likely the Nationals.
Boston’s former facility in Fort Myers is vacant – the Red Sox built a Fenway Park replica near the airport – but Beeston grumbled humorously about the bad karma attached to using facilities once occupied by the Red Sox. Washington has looked at that site.
Vero Beach is an upscale beach community within reasonable distance of the Atlanta Braves at Disney World and the Astros (currently), Mets, Marlins and Cardinals. The legendary grounds are being used by minor-league baseball.
Pasco County, to the northeast of Dunedin, pursued the Jays aggressively before renovations were carried out in 2002 and 2003 on Dunedin’s minor-league facility and the stadium. The Class A Florida State League affiliates, including the Dunedin Jays, play out of the same stadiums during the summer; the minor-league Jays draw poorly in Dunedin.
There’s abundant land around Tradition Field in Port St. Lucie and the Mets would welcome an American League team in the area. More revenue would be generated with an additional fan base in the area, and travel could be reduced.
Astros owner Jim Crane also owns a golf course in Palm City and news reports have stated that he aims to build a facility there.