As gorgeous weather arrives and baseball's playoffs move on without the Tampa Bay Rays, our thoughts are already turning toward spring. And there is more to look forward to in St. Petersburg, where teams from four foreign nations will start playing in the city's spring training facilities. Mayor Bill Foster's successful effort to create an international baseball program blends nicely with major-league spring training, makes good use of the city's underutilized baseball complexes and could attract more tourists.
Plans announced this month call for national teams from the Netherlands and Canada to start playing each other in the spring at Al Lang Field. Australia's team will come later in the year, and a team from Seoul, South Korea, also has signed on. The Rays and other major-league teams are expected to play the international teams in the spring. If all goes as planned, the daily games at Al Lang Field will recall the years when St. Petersburg hosted both the New York Mets and the St. Louis Cardinals in the spring and there were games every afternoon. Only the names of some of the players will be less familiar.
Foster gets credit for following through on one of his campaign pledges. The mayor praises the work of Jim Neader, the former sports agent and Foster's campaign manager, who was hired by the city for $50,000 a year to pursue sports opportunities. If Foster's math works out, the city should recoup that salary in economic benefits from the success of this project.
The international baseball effort makes good use of Al Lang, the Walter Fuller baseball complex and possibly Huggins-Stengel Field. Foster said more than $60,000 in private money has been raised to help maintain the fields and cover other expenses, and the city has applied for a grant from the Florida Sports Foundation for marketing. Anything to draw even a few more international visitors to the area in this difficult economy would be a plus — and so would seeing major-league teams back in St. Petersburg in March.
This could be the start of something even bigger. Foster hopes to use the arrival of the international teams next year as a springboard to bid for some early games tied to the World Baseball Classic, which is set for 2013 and will include some of the best major-league players on Team USA. While that is a long way off, the return of spring baseball to St. Petersburg will fill the emptiness created when the Rays left for Port Charlotte — and spring is just around the corner.