The Toronto Blue Jays have a year remaining on the deal with their home away from home. The relationship means a lot to the city of Dunedin, Fla.
The Blue Jays are certainly continuing the momentum of the fall so far during spring training. The games are exciting, the players rested and healthy (for the most part) and happy to be playing again as much as we’re enjoying the fact that baseball’s back. It’s still a tease, though. The Jays aren’t home. Baseball versions of a snowbird, the Jays are in Florida, and have called Dunedin their home away from home since the club’s inception. That’s where all the action is right now.
The Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, previously known as Dunedin Stadium at Grant Field, was the original site of Grant Field. It was at Grant Field that the Jays played their first game against the Mets on March 11, 1977. They beat them 3-1. In 1990, Dunedin Stadium was built on Grant Field, keeping the original playing surface but increasing capacity and adding a clubhouse. The Florida Auto Exchange, a Dunedin car sales center, bought the naming rights in a 7-year agreement in 2010, hence the name, Florida Auto Exchange Stadium.
The stadium did undergo renovations starting in 2002, which included upgrades to the club house, training room and weight room, and then most recently, remodelled washrooms and replaced grandstand seats. Despite that, there are many more upgrades to be done if the Jays are going to continue using Dunedin as their spring home after the 2017 season.
From a fan perspective, Dunedin has been a great place for baseball. The retro, old school feel of the park lends to close encounters with the players. The foul ball territory is short and the seats are pretty much on top of the players. It has a hometown ball club feel to the games and a relaxed, family atmosphere that in some ways is slowly disappearing from other newer and bigger spring training facilities.
There is a strong contingent of Canadians that have been making annual pilgrimages down to Dunedin, many buying real estate in the surrounding areas with the games during spring training as a motivating factor for their purchases. It is impressive how many fans at spring training are considered “regulars”. It really is that many that make the annual trek.
There was talk last year about moving facilities, to share with the Houston Astros in West Palm Beach on the other side of the state. Understandably, that has been met with considerable fan opposition, especially those who have real estate tied to their spring training sabbaticals. Not to worry folks, it seems the Jays have decided to try and make a deal with Dunedin.
The new deal, which could see the Jays in Dunedin for another 30 years, includes a new and bigger ballpark and updated amenities. This will be no small feat considering the land around the current stadium isn’t vacant and expanding in the current location could mean relocating a library or a public school. There is a ban on discussing negotiations, but every indication is that Dunedin is motivated to keep the Jays around long term.
Keeping the club in Dunedin is a good move from a fan perspective. It really has become a home way from home, with a strong Canadian vibe even in the town itself. Sales at local businesses jump between 30-40 percent during spring training and it has been estimated that it brings in 85 million dollars to the economy in Dunedin and surrounding areas. A needed boom to a small town of 37,000 people. Jane Sweeney, a business owner in Dunedin spoke of this to CBC when asked what impact the Jays leaving would have. “It would be catastrophic for many of us. I think it would make a huge impact.”
The issue going forward is to somehow strike a balance between keeping the hometown feel while upgrading the facilities to allow our players to have the optimal training experience to keep competitive. When competing against other teams, it is important to advance training facilities to optimize results from players. Mark Shapiro also spoke to CBC about this.
“This is a functional situation that has a lot of the old spring training charm to it, but the reality is when your competitors who are competing against you for wins, every single day are operating in facilities that are more advanced, that offer more opportunities for your players to improve and develop, you need to make sure that you’re not only keeping up with them, that you are moving ahead of them.
Finding this balance between a new competitive facility and the old school charm of the current facility is the key. All the players involved seem motivated to do just that. Julie Ward Bujalski, the town’s mayor perhaps said it best. “We are a small town, but size doesn’t always matter,” she said. “It’s really a matter of the heart we have here and our heart bleeds blue.”
*Featured Image Credit: Bart Hanlon UNDER CC BY-SA 2.0
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Catherine Stem is a Blue Jays fan and writer who has combined both of these great things by writing for Jays From the Couch. Through all the ups and downs of baseball, all aspects of the game are explored. Keeping a close eye on the Blue Jays Triple A team, the Buffalo Bisons has also become part of her make-up.