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Southwest Florida's New Stadium

May 03, 2019 03:39PM

Baseball gets even more exciting in Southwest Florida this year with the unveiling of a new stadium in North Port for the Atlanta Braves

By Jacob Ogles

 Baseball holds a special position in our culture. It’s America’s pastime, the sport of song and nursery rhyme. It’s the celebration of “root, root, root”-ing for the home team” and the sorrow of that moment “mighty Casey” has struck out.

            In Southwest Florida, the sport brings more than rowdy cheers to stadiums during spring training. The region hosts no major metropolis of the size required to house a professional sports organization year-round but holds a key place in the fan community nonetheless.

            This is Red Sox Nation and Twins Country. It means going to Rays’ home games without crossing the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. It’s the Orioles’ magic and the Pirates’ plunder. And starting this season, it’s the Talking Chop—sounding from a posh sports venue in North Port—as the Deep South’s favorite team finds its way to paradise. 

            When the Atlanta Braves holds its final spring training game of the 2019 season in a brand-new stadium in West Villages this year, the region officially becomes the off-season heart of Major League Baseball. 

            “This is the perfect location for our team and we couldn’t be more excited to be part of Sarasota County and West Villages,” explains Braves CEO Terry McGuirk. With six teams headquartered between Bradenton and Fort Myers, a greater concentration of professional sports teams converge here than anywhere outside of Greater Phoenix. Like the movie Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.”

Home Run Legacy

An official history of the “Grapefruit League” traces Florida’s connection to spring training back to 1888 when the Washington Nationals practiced for three weeks in Jacksonville. Considering that trip became an introduction to the Sunshine State for a catcher named Connie Mack, it deserves some recognition for its long impact on the region’s politics and national identity. 

            But the Nationals had a crummy season that year, and when Mack as a team manager took the Philadelphia Athletics to train in Florida a few years later, the same thing happened.

            So spring training didn’t truly start in earnest until the Chicago Cubs set up shop in Tampa in 1913. The St. Louis Browns were in St. Petersburg the same year. The following spring, Mack took the Athletics back to Jacksonville and the St. Louis Cardinals set up in St. Augustine. 

            An exhibition league thus came to be. By 1915, the Philadelphia Phillies came to St. Pete and launched a winning streak. Superstition being what it is in baseball, Florida turned into the place to practice.

            The Cards started playing off-season games in Bradenton in 1919, the first team to take spring training south of Tampa Bay. Then the Boston Red Sox started playing in Sarasota in 1933 and the expansion further south continued. With time, stadiums became more elaborate, the public contracts more expensive but the leases much longer. 

            The Grapefruit League in recent years gravitated more toward the Gulf Coast with each new stadium negotiation. Moreover, every one of the teams in the region now has a decades-long contract to maintain spring training in their current locales, ensuring baseball remains a part of Gulf Coast culture for at least a generation.

            Currently, Bradenton houses the Pittsburgh Pirates at LECOM Park. The Baltimore Orioles play at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota. Charlotte Sports Park in Port Charlotte is the site of the Tampa Bay Rays’ spring training at. The Minnesota Twins pitch at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers and across town, the Boston Red Sox play ball at JetBlue Park. 

New Stadium

The Atlanta Braves had hoped to host its first full spring training season in North Port this year. But construction delays prompted a decision to hold most of the season at its former spring training home, the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in the Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando. 

            However, on Sunday, March 24, the Braves will hold an exhibition against the Rays at the new stadium inside the West Villages community. At that point, the team’s commitment to Southwest Florida begins and a legacy of Gulf Coast baseball continues.

            “It’s great now to have a destination partner like the Atlanta Braves,” says Marty Black, general manager for the West Villages, which donated the land for the stadium. Located in a brand-new community in the North Port city limits, the arrival of spring training centers life in the neighborhood around baseball.

            Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County, says the arrival of the team opens up possibilities for tourism in the region as well. The Braves’ fan base runs throughout the South, she said. And giving reason for many residents of such a huge region of the country to visit North Port each spring could revolutionize the hospitality area in the rare beach-less city on the coast.

            And it will do for some time. The Braves, Sarasota County, North Port and West Villages in 2017 entered into a $100-million deal that will keep the Braves in town for at least 30 years.

Extra Innings

Such deals have become the norm. The Boston Red Sox in 2012 moved from City of Palms near downtown Fort Myers to JetBlue Park south of town, going into pristine, modern facilities that cost a pretty penny, but committed to stay in Lee County for three decades. 

            And when the Orioles left facilities on the east coast to take over a heavily renovated Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, the club inked a deal for a similar period of time. When the Rays moved into Charlotte Sports Park, the organization signed a 20-year deal. Meanwhile, the Pirates in Bradenton and Twins in Fort Myers in recent years signed their own 30-year contracts to stay put.

            For the teams, it’s good to put down stakes instead of constantly looking toward the next public negotiation. “We’re here until 2044,” says Mark Weber, the Twins’ Florida business operations manager. “We’ve essentially become residents of Southwest Florida.”

            In fact, Weber lives here year-round, and notes that while spring training typically spans six weeks a year, there’s baseball happening every month at Hammond Stadium. The stadium also houses the Fort Myers Miracle, a minor league affiliate of the Twins, just as the Charlotte Sports Park hosts the Charlotte Sand Crabs, LECOM Park the Bradenton Marauders and JetBlue Park the Gulf Coast Red Sox.

            David Rovine, vice president of Orioles-Sarasota operations, says facilities in Southwest Florida provide year-round player development and athletic training, from fantasy leagues to physical rehabilitation. And the contributions pay dividends for the host community. 

            “In the nine years since moving Major League spring training to Sarasota, the Orioles are making a substantial and positive impact in the community,” Rovine says. “That partnership is what the organization always envisioned.” 

            He says that the ball club alone has spent $15 million in hotel room nights for players and staff. Reports show the team has generated about $97 million in annual economic impact for the Sarasota area.

            And of course, there’s the tourism. Rovine notes the Orioles—as part of its relationship with Sarasota—market the community across multi-platform media in the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., region. That’s resulted in a 300 percent increase in visitors to Sarasota from the mid-Atlantic region in the first quarter of each calendar year.

Come for Games, Stay for Weather

Weber adds that if you look at flight numbers into Southwest Florida International Airport, the top two originating markets consistently each year are Minnesota and Boston. “And ultimately, a lot of the people coming here from the upper Midwest to watch spring training decide they want to live here,” he says. That’s not just baseball, of course. Many come for the games and stay for the weather.

            Which in a sense answers the biggest question about why so many teams hold their spring training camps in Southwest Florida each year. 

            For sure, reasons grow each season: The Braves three years ago informed Disney of the team’s intention to leave the Orlando area to get closer to other ball clubs and cut down travel times for players. Now, the vast majority of Florida operations happens on the west coast, including the Toronto Blue Jays in Dunedin, the Phillies in Clearwater and the New York Yankees in Tampa. 

            Smaller airports in Sarasota, Punta Gorda and Fort Myers also allow more fluid travel for fans and team staff between hometowns and Florida. And every player with family enjoys taking their children to the beach.

            But why train in Florida in the first place, rather than stay in multimillion-dollar stadiums at home? Sure, it’s good to take the team somewhere away from the distractions of home, and it’s good to have exhibition games pre-season, whether with the Grapefruit League in Florida or the “Cactus League” in Arizona. But baseball, the Astrodome aside, gets played outdoors, and the great majority of Major League Baseball teams can’t do that in February and keep their players healthy.

            “Have you been to Minneapolis in February and March?” Weber asks, while laughing. “I guess it’s fine if you want to play in 2 feet of snow.”

 Jacob Ogles is a freelance journalist based in Southwest Florida and a frequent contributor.