Signs are pointing to the Blue Jays sharing a new spring training complex in Palm Beach Gardens with the Houston Astros.
The Astros, currently housed in Kissimmee, Fla., have been scouting sites in southeastern Florida for a year, and the Blue Jays are looking at options aside from Dunedin, a small city to the west of Tampa where they have staged spring training since inception in 1977.
A proposal submitted to the a joint budget committee of the Florida Senate and House of Representatives on Monday would provide $50-million over 37-1/2 years for a stadium shared by two teams. Local governments would have to match the funding, for a total of $100-million in subsidies.
The proposal has been accepted for inclusion in the state budget, which must be voted upon by May 3.
"The next step would be for teams to strike a deal with local communities," Brian Ballard, a lobbyist representing the Blue Jays, Astros and city of Palm Beach Gardens, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. "Once the local government makes a deal with them, the group would be qualified under the provisions of Monday's proposal."
In March, the Astros identified an 82-acre site in Palm Beach Gardens as a relocation site suitable for two teams. At the existing shared sites in Florida and Arizona, one team has practice diamonds, an office and clubhouse on the left field side, the other on the right-field side. Only the stadium is used commonly, including ticket operations.
Ritch Workman, who represents the city of Melbourne in the Legislature, described an Astros - Jays deal as well under way.
"I got that impression," he told Scripps Newspapers. "Two of the franchises that are looking to do a stadium down in southeastern Florida made a proposal that additional funds were necessary. … They were able to get the dollars they need to build their facilities."
Ballard, however, emphasized that the Blue Jays are open to options.
"I don't think final decisions have been made yet about locations," he said.
A move to the east coast would have the advantage of separating the Blue Jays from the AL East teams they play so frequently during the regular season. Boston, Tampa, New York Yankees and Tampa Bay conduct spring training on the west coast.
Several weeks ago, Astros owner Jim Crane identified the Blue Jays as one team expressing interest in a partnership. "We're waiting on state approval and city approval, which isn't done yet," he told mlb.com. "Once that's done, a two-team complex there would anchor that area with the Marlins and Cardinals, and Mets up the street. That would be a pretty good situation for everybody, and those teams are very supportive of somebody trying to get something done there."
In Palm Beach Gardens, the facility would be located six kilometres from Jupiter, where the New York Mets and Miami Marlins of the National League share a facility, and about 45 minutes further up the road, the New York Mets train in Port St. Lucie. As the Mets could opt out of that site, the state wants to solidify spring training in the southeastern part of the state.
The Jays could have numerous options, including renewal in Dunedin and a possible move to Naples in southwest Florida, close to Fort Myers where the Red Sox and Twins train. The Jays have considered Arizona in the past as well, but preferred to stay within reasonable driving distance for residents of southwestern Ontario.
The Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves also have contracts expiring within a year of the Jays' with Dunedin, in 2017. As well, the Mets are open to sharing their facility in Jupiter, Fla.
In an interview last month, Jays president Paul Beeston said he is loyal to Dunedin while emphasizing that satisfying the baseball operations department of the Blue Jays is top priority. In Dunedin, unlike most spring training sites, the minor league facility is separated from the stadium site.
A move to the southern part of the state would also provide more reliably warm temperatures. In most of March this spring, the weather in Dunedin was chillier than in the south.
Beeston and Dunedin mayor Dave Eggers are to meet on the issue in the near future, according to a Florida newspaper report. The city is moving ahead with a feasibility study to consider construction of a new stadium for the Jays.
Meantime, the Blue Jays are negotiating with the Olympic Installation board to play preseason games as early as next spring, in Montreal. Justine Lord-Dufour said some investment would be required to bring Olympic Stadium, formerly the home grounds of the Expos, into a state suitable for baseball.
With a report from Sean Gordon, in Montreal