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It's no 1-800-ASK-GARY,

DUNEDIN

In 2008, two weeks after a rally for then-Sen. Barack Obama packed the stands of Knology Park, the baseball stadium's naming rights expired.

The cable and phone company decided to not renew its deal, killing the name — and the $350,000 it had paid to coin it.

City officials mounted a two-year effort to relabel the interim Dunedin Stadium, sending letters to hundreds of local businesses with a plea to "name our game."

On Thursday, the search finally ended.

Baseball fans — welcome to Florida Auto Exchange Stadium.

Wait. Huh?

"That's an odd one," said Mitch Tucker, who lives across Beltrees Street from the field on Douglas Avenue. "I guess they could call it anything they want — they need the money. It just doesn't sound right."

It sounds good enough to the City Commission, which approved the naming rights Thursday night. The used car lot on Main Street and Belcher Road will pay $181,000 over seven years to flash its name in lights across the stadium, most often used as the spring training home of the Toronto Blue Jays.

City parks director Vince Gizzi said that's a steal for what will amount to an estimated $300,000 in television, newspaper and radio advertisements. The used-car lot will get promotions, plus a few skybox tickets; the city will get money toward stadium roofing, fencing and grandstand work.

It may not be the strangest venue name — you might have to Ask Gary for that one — but it does raise some questions. Like, why would the Canadian baseball junkies who fill the stadium every spring want to buy a used car?

Owner Jeff Rhoads Sr., who also runs an Isuzu dealership, a used-car rental store and a auto repair shop, said he knows it might seem a little . . . different, at first. "We thought it would add a little zing to the stadium," he said.

He had even, early in the negotiations, suggested something stranger: Dr. Credit Stadium, named after his company mascot and alter ego, an incongruous superhero in a lab coat, pink scrubs and a scuba mask.

Although Dr. Credit's zany adventures saving forlorn drivers were the basis for five low-budget cable commercials, Rhoads ultimately decided against it. (Probably a good idea, given there was a Dr. Credit Finance Centre, no relation, in Toronto.)

But in time, Rhoads said, it could become a great investment in the city where he has run his companies for 22 years.

"I'm a big Dunedin fan," he said. "I'm proud to live here, and I'm proud to have my name on that stadium."

The 5,500-seat open-air stadium, home of the Jays, the minor-league Dunedin Blue Jays and the Dunedin High Falcons, will get three new signs by next month. Where they play, on Grant Field — named after Albert J. Grant, a former mayor who deeded the land to the city in the 1930s — will keep its name.

Many baseball stadiums are known for their brands — everything from insurance (Safeco Field, Progressive Field) to banks (Citi Field, Comerica Park) to beers (Coors Field, Busch Stadium) to juices (Tropicana Field, Minute Maid Park) have been stamped in neon on the side of sports venues.

Music venues took the idea to a whole new level of crazy. Examples: Colorado's Comfort Dental Amphitheatre, California's Sleep Train Pavilion, Virginia's Jiffy Lube Live and Tampa's very own 1-800-ASK-GARY Amphitheatre.

But spring training fields are a little different. The Florida Auto Exchange Stadium will join only two other current, corporate- branded ballparks, all within Florida's Grapefruit League: Bright House Field, in Clearwater, home of the Philadelphia Phillies; and Digital Domain Park, named after a visual effects studio, where the New York Mets train in Port St. Lucie. (The Tampa Bay Rays are expected to play some spring exhibition games next year at their former Al Lang Field training grounds in Progress Energy Park.)

Shelby Nelson, the Jays' Florida general manager, said he doesn't expect any backlash from the new name. He remembers when Canadian telecom giant Rogers Communications renamed the Toronto team's SkyDome to Rogers Centre.

"People resist at first," Nelson said. "Then it sort of grows on you."

Still, it's anybody's guess how long that might take.

"I don't like it," said Indrani Troconis, who was walking her son Sebastian on Friday along the outfield fence. "It just sounds weird. Like a car dealership."

Contact Drew Harwell at dharwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

It's no 1-800-ASK-GARY, 11/06/10 [Last modified: Saturday, November 6, 2010 2:45pm]
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