Crusty as ever at the age of 63, Jack Morris will admit he was never a huge fan of the Toronto Blue Jays’ spring training operation in Dunedin, Fla. To be honest, the Hall of Fame pitcher had little patience, period, for the six-week warm-climate sojourn players throughout Major League Baseball are subjected to each year to ready themselves for the start of the regular season.
Morris was a member of the Blue Jays World Series-winning clubs in 1992 and 1993 and he vividly recalls making the trek into Dunedin for those two years to work out in what he recalled were spartan conditions.
“It was rough,” Morris said in a recent interview. “We actually had to go early in the year over to the minor league complex, and travel was tough. It’s not an easy place to get in and out of. Living in the area, most of the guys wanted to be on the beach or somewhere close to the beach.
“It wasn’t the ideal scenario. But I guess if I was a general manager I wouldn’t worry about what players think about spring training. I look back and the reason I made it to the big leagues is minor leagues sucked so bad – the facilities. It was a motivation to get the hell out of the minor leagues to play in the big leagues.”
But Morris will admit that times change, even in the tradition-steeped world of MLB.
And so it is for the Blue Jays who, after more than 40 years training in quaint, but antiquated facilities, have announced plans for a major upgrade to their Dunedin spring training digs that the club envisions will make it the envy of baseball.
“I think we’re going to have, over all, the all-round best facility in Major League Baseball when this is done,” said Mark Shapiro, the Blue Jays president and chief executive officer. He has made the modernization of the Florida-based operation his primary mission since he was hired to run the club following the 2015 season.
On Thursday, the Blue Jays will once again gather in this funky city of 35,000 off Florida’s Gulf Coast to start spring training in preparation for the new season with the first official workout for pitchers and catchers. The rest of the crew will report by Feb. 18.
The spectre of a shiny new training facility will be a welcome diversion for the Blue Jays. The organization is embarking on a major on-field rebuilding venture, growing pains that will likely result in more losses than wins over the next couple of years battling the likes of the deep-pocketed Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees in the combative American League East.
A desultory 73-89 a year ago, the 2019 regular-season campaign for the Blue Jays will begin on March 28 with the first of a four-game series at Rogers Centre in Toronto against the Detroit Tigers.
Dunedin has been the only spring training home the Blue Jays have known since they joined the A.L. circuit in 1977. And if all goes according to plan, the club will move into its new state-of-the-art facility – two separate venues, actually – in time for the beginning of spring training in 2020 following an extensive renovation already underway that will cost in excess of US$81-million.
The Blue Jays will be on the hook for around US$20-million of that total which will include a new 25-year lease with the City of Dunedin to continue to train and play their Grapefruit League preseason games in Florida. Pinellas County will contribute a little more than US$41-million to the new venture and the state of Florida US$13-million. Dunedin is bankrolling the rest, which includes an expenditure of US$5.7-million and the donation of city-owned lands to accommodate a portion of the new development.
At a juncture where the club has committed to fielding a team stocked primarily with young, unproven prospects, Shapiro is convinced the capital expenditure towards a substantial spring training upgrade will pay dividends where it matters most to Blue Jays fans – future success at the major league level.
“It’s meant to be a competitive advantage, it’s meant to lead to wins,” Shapiro said. “And I really do believe that this was extremely important to the Blue Jays to get, not just to move into the current times but to have an opportunity to move ahead of everybody else.”
Their current facility is one of the oldest in both Florida’s Grapefruit League and in the Cactus League in Arizona where major league teams also congregate for preseason conditioning and games. Shapiro said in the past decade, 22 out of the 30 MLB teams have gone through major renovations or moved into new spring training facilities.
While most major league teams enjoy the convenience of staging their spring training operations at a single location, such as the Philadelphia Phillies in nearby Clearwater and the New York Yankees in Tampa, the lack of open space in cramped Dunedin has meant the Blue Jays have had to use two venues to facilitate their needs.
Under the new renovations, both venues will receive major upgrades.
The club plays its spring training games about a five-to-10-minute walk from the city’s main drag out of Dunedin Stadium, a rudimentary concrete bunker with tight concourses that makes getting around a chore for the fans. The 5,500-seat facility was constructed in 1990 and last renovated in 2000.
The bulk of the Blue Jays daily training, however, is conducted at their sprawling minor league complex known as the Bobby Mattick Training Centre at Englebert Complex, about a 10-minute drive northeast of the stadium. That complex is also outdated, having first opened in 1978.
Each day, before the start of the Grapefruit League schedule, the players are required to troop onto buses at the main stadium that will take them back and forth to the training centre, an inconvenience that facilitates plenty of grumbling amongst the players, especially the normally pampered veterans.
“In a perfect world, you’re not getting in a car and driving 10-15 minutes to your stadium to play your game,” Shapiro noted. “That’s not ideal.”
A few years back, when the Blue Jays started making serious overtures about needing a better training setup, they explored all options – even the possibility of moving to a new Florida location. At one stage, the club was in serious negotiations with the Houston Astros about partnering on a new shared spring training facility that would be in West Palm Beach, on the other side of the state.
In the end, after negotiations with the city and county representatives, the Blue Jays decided their best option was to upgrade their operation and keep it in Dunedin, the place they have established deep roots.
Florida politicians were only too happy to commit public funding to the development, understanding the continued presence of a Major League Baseball team attracts people to the area, all looking to spread their money around the Dunedin area. According to figures provided by the Blue Jays, 79 per cent of those who attend their spring training games reside outside of Pinellas County; 55 per cent of that total travel from outside the state.
“Before I joined the organization there was an exploration of a number of different options with the city trying to find different properties that could potentially put everything on one site,” said Andrew Miller, executive vice-president, business operations with the Blue Jays. “Ultimately we decided that our No. 1 goal was to try to find a way to stay in Dunedin.
“We’re proud of the partnership we’ve had with the city, with Pinellas County, for 40-plus years now. We’re the only team in Major League Baseball that has not moved its spring training site in its history. We’re very proud of that and proud to be staying.”
The upgrades to the downtown stadium will be about US$33-million of the total cost and will increase seating capacity to 8,500.
The stadium refresh will include new restaurants and bars and also a boardwalk that will circumvent the stadium and allow paying customers the ability to peer into both the home and visiting team’s bullpens for a bird’s eye view of pitchers warming up.
But it is the work set for the minor league complex that has the team most excited. It’s a venue that will easily accommodate both the major- and minor-league side of the operation with all the game’s cutting-edge technology to help assist in improving player performance.
It will feature a new weight room spanning two floors, more than twice the size of the current workout area, a covered agility field and batting tunnels, a yoga studio and spacious new clubhouses and locker facilities – one for the major league team to enjoy and the others for minor-leaguers.
There will be new space for the team’s ever-expanding high-performance medical department that will include various hot tubs and pools to help soothe the aching muscles of athletes not to mention a video room, a kitchen to keep everybody well fed with only the most nutritious treats and a large dining hall.
Shapiro said one of the goals once the new training facility is up and running will be for the club’s development staff to live in the area and provide players with their expertise on a year-round basis, not just during the spring training period. That would alleviate the need for players to seek out their own training resources, which Shapiro said is not always the best approach.
“Consistency of approach, consistency of development,” Shapiro said. “You’re not going in and out.
“There are absolutely some of the people out there that are training [players], that are doing outstanding jobs. But there is a huge range of inconsistencies. When you turn your athletes over to someone else, training with different techniques and different supervision, there is some risk involved with that as opposed to adding consistency.”