DUNEDIN — A Canadian newspaper reported this week that the Toronto Blue Jays are considering ditching Dunedin as their spring training home in favor of more modern facilities somewhere else.
Blue Jays president Paul Beeston told the Toronto-based Globe and Mail that the facilities in Dunedin are not ideal, with the stadium on Douglas Avenue and the training complex several miles away.
The article's author called Florida Auto Exchange Stadium "long past its best-before date" and mentioned that during a recent Blue Jays-Yankees game, the souvenir shop was cramped, there were long lines for restrooms and there was a "desperate lack" of stadium parking.
Though Beeston told the newspaper that the facilities haven't prevented the team from being successful and that "in a perfect world" the team would stay in Dunedin, he also confirmed that the team plans to assess its options over the next year.
The Jays' 15-year lease of the stadium expires in 2017. The Blue Jays have trained in Dunedin each spring since 1977, the year the team was founded.
Dunedin parks and recreation director Vince Gizzi said it is team officials' job "as good business people" to test the waters.
"It looks like the Blue Jays are speculating to find the best arrangement for themselves," Gizzi said. "I don't think there's anything more than that at this point."
Mayor Dave Eggers agreed: "It's way too early to be super excited or super depressed."
Besides, Gizzi believes that Dunedin has a competitive edge.
"The major-league teams don't want to get in buses and travel," Gizzi said, pointing to sparse Grapefruit League competitor options on Florida's east coast.
"The location here in Dunedin is great because of the close proximity to all the ballparks within an hour or less," he said, citing teams in Clearwater, Sarasota, Hillsborough County, Lakeland and Bradenton. "And I think we have a strong fan base here that supports the Blue Jays and Major League Baseball here."
Eggers said Beeston's comments to the Globe and Mail mirror those in a casual conversation the two men had on Friday.
Neither Beeston nor Florida operations manager Shelby Nelson returned calls from the Tampa Bay Times on Wednesday, and team spokesman Patrick Kurish declined to comment.
The team has been courted by other communities in the past but chose to remain in Dunedin. The team's main frustration, Beeston said, is the 3.5-mile distance between the 5,509-seat, 12-acre stadium on Douglas Avenue and the Englebert Complex on Solon Avenue where players train. Gizzi said that complex has five full practice fields, one artificial-turf field, batting cages, pitching areas, a clubhouse, locker rooms and office space spread over 23 acres.
Pasco County aggressively pursued the Jays before Dunedin shelled out roughly $14 million for facility renovations at the outset of the current contract.
Meanwhile, stadiums in Naples and Fort Myers — Canadian vacation hot spots within driving distance of spring training facilities for the Marlins, the Cardinals and others — are vacant.
Many new spring training stadium complexes now occupy 100 acres or more. Gizzi said at least 50 to 60 acres would be required to combine stadium and practice facilities. Dunedin, which is mostly built out, doesn't have many large, vacant parcels of land. Officials have mentioned that the roughly 23-acre former Nielsen Media Research campus on Patricia Avenue is the largest single property available in the city.
Eggers declined to comment on potential city parcels large enough to accommodate a new sports complex, saying it's too early to know whether facilities are a deal breaker.
"We're going to officially sit down with them and get their criteria," he said, "and try to come up with solutions that meet their needs."
Meanwhile, a report on spring training, including facility funding options, that Gizzi was scheduled to present to the City Commission on April 4 has been moved up to the March 21 meeting.
"I want (everyone) to know we want that team and Major League Baseball," Eggers said, "and we're going to start working real hard to earn that 15- to 20-year agreement."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or [email protected]