With the end of spring training baseball came a new season of hope for Dunedin city officials: The president of the Toronto Blue Jays began talking to them again. As the talks continue, their substance should be shared with the public, because there are a lot of fences to mend in this three-plus decade relationship between the Jays and Dunedin.
The Blue Jays showed up about a year ago expressing dissatisfaction with Dunedin's spring training facilities. Then they started looking for greener pastures and wouldn't return Dunedin officials' phone calls.
Fortunately, Mayor Dave Eggers and City Manager Rob DiSpirito are professional, slow-to-smolder types. While no doubt feeling rebuffed by Jays president Paul Beeston, they began casting about for solutions that might keep the Blue Jays in town, and kept punching Beeston's phone number.
Perhaps it was just coincidence, but the Jays stopped giving the city the cold shoulder after two things happened. First, city officials tired of the silent treatment and announced they would start a search for a new spring training team. Second, the residents of Palm Beach Gardens, the east coast city that tried to lure the Houston Astros and the Blue Jays for a dual spring training stadium, declared they didn't want a stadium built in the midst of their community, which was already too heavily developed for their taste.
The Blue Jays changed their song. Sure, they were willing to consider staying in Dunedin, they said. And maybe it wasn't such a big deal that Dunedin's stadium and its practice facility are separated by more than 3 miles (though that had seemed a deal-breaker earlier).
After a positive, face-to-face meeting between Beeston and city officials in late March, the city is awaiting a list of requested facility improvements from the team, which has a contract to play in Dunedin until 2017. The city hopes the Jays will agree to a substantial extension of the contract.
Both sides need to keep some things in mind as they enter this period of negotiation.
The city should acknowledge that its spring training facilities are … quaint, at best, when compared to more modern facilities like Clearwater's Bright House Field. Improvements would serve the Jays, the fans and the youth leagues that use those facilities. The loss of spring training baseball and a mothballed stadium without a team would do nothing for the city's image or tax base or the businesses that benefit from the annual influx of baseball fans and players.
The Jays should recognize Dunedin is a small town with limited resources that has struggled during the economic downturn. It balanced its budget by laying off workers, consolidating programs and putting its dreams on the shelf. Many of its residents lost jobs, lost homes or struggled to get by. Finding the money to rebuild or overhaul Florida Auto Exchange Stadium and the Englebert training complex will be challenging for Dunedin, especially without some financial help from the Jays in bearing the costs.
But Dunedin has loved and accommodated Jays spring training baseball since 1977. Now, it appears, the Blue Jays would like to stay and play ball in a community that wants them. Each side has much to gain from continuing this longtime partnership. That's the common ground on which the two sides can start negotiating.