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Small stadium capacity one reason Jays will seek new spring home

Toronto Blue Jays right fielder Jose Bautista signs autographs before a spring training baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles, Thursday, March 7, 2013, in Sarasota, Fla.

Associated Press

The receptionist's phone rang constantly in the Blue Jays office last Friday. Customers wanted tickets for games against the Detroit Tigers and the New York Yankees this past weekend.

"Sold out," the receptionist told one after the other.

The stated capacity of Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, 5,509, is smaller than any stadium's in the Grapefruit League except for Houston's in Kissimmee. That's one reason the Blue Jays will be scouting areas for a new spring training home.

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After drawing 5,559 for the Yankees game on Sunday, Toronto stands 20th this spring for average attendance, at 4,556.

Last year, the Jays ranked 29th out of 30 clubs, with 4,471. All five AL East teams conduct spring training along Florida's Gulf Coast. By comparison, the Baltimore Orioles averaged 7,093 in Sarasota last season, the Boston Red Sox 9,482 in Fort Myers, the New York Yankees 10,855 in Tampa, and the Tampa Rays 5,495 in Port Charlotte.

Sandy Alderson, a former Major League Baseball executive who is now general manager of the Mets, says he misses the quaintness of spring training from bygone days while appreciating the need for the larger facilities. Grapefruit League ticket prices have soared over the past decade.

"I don't think it's a significant revenue source, but it has gotten to a point where spring training expense is offset," he said.

With financial assistance from governments, clubs have built stadiums in Florida to heighten the fan experience during spring training. They resemble the best of Triple-A ballparks, and are left for the Single-A Gulf Coast League teams to use once spring training is finished.

Roy Halladay started for the Philadelphia Phillies on Tuesday at Bright House Field, a 10-year-old stadium with a capacity of 8,872. There are luxury boxes, grass and bleachers seating in the outfield, and angled stands down the foul lines. Ticket prices range from $14 to $34.

A $31-million renovation of the spring training facility in 2009 lured the Orioles to Sarasota – an hour's drive south of Dunedin – from Fort Lauderdale, and fans are packing a pastoral ballpark done in beige stucco with baseball-green seats and orange trim. Washrooms and concessions stands are plentiful, sightlines ideal, parking provided in a sprawling field.

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In the left-field pavilion, spectators order pulled-pork and pit-beef sandwiches with buckets of Bud, and sit behind long narrow tables in bleachers landscaped with palm trees. The feeling is one part baseball, one part Margaritaville. Baltimore's spring training attendance increased to 106,398 in 2012 from 73,415 in 2009, the last season in Fort Lauderdale.

The boon in spring training site development over the past decade has featured complexes with a minimum of four practice diamonds arranged in cloverleaf design, alongside upgraded stadiums with spacious offices and clubhouses.

In contrast, Toronto has a stadium and a practice diamond at the major-league site; renovations at the minor-league site in 2003 left five diamonds including four in a cloverleaf, but there was no room for a stadium or parking. Florida Auto Exchange Stadium lacks modern conveniences for fans.

The development trend has two teams sharing a stadium with each getting its own clubhouse, office and practice diamonds. The Dodgers and Chicago White Sox most recently partnered in the $80-million (all currency U.S.) Camelback Ranch development in Glendale, Ariz. In Florida, the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals occupy a complex in Jupiter, Fla.

The Houston Astros, Washington Nationals and New York Mets may be looking for a partner in a new facility.

Other than Dunedin, possible destinations for the Blue Jays include Naples, Vero Beach, Pasco County and Palm City.

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