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Fans will stay even if Jays fly away

Published Oct. 1, 2005

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

When the Toronto Blue Jays played their first spring training game in Dunedin in 1977, James and Julie Bethell were rooting from the stands.

And when the Blue Jays play what could be their last local spring training game March 30, the Bethells will be there again.

Like many Canadians who are winter residents of the Dunedin area, the Bethells have followed the Blue Jays avidly for two decades, in both Canada and Florida.

But rooting has its limits.

The Bethells say they have no plans to follow the Blue Jays once the team moves to Sarasota or some other spring training home. The Blue Jays' lease extends to 1999, but team officials have said they need more space than Dunedin can provide and are negotiating an agreement with Sarasota.

Even without their team, Dunedin has plenty to offer, the Bethells say. They live in Ottawa and have spent winters in Dunedin for the past two decades. They see no reason to change.

"When I'm only a driver away from the pro shop here in Dunedin, I have lots of things to do," said James Bethell, 79, who is retired from the Canadian Mint.

No one denies that the loss of the team will have an impact. Gordon Woodall, a retired ophthalmologist, has been visiting Dunedin for 20 years to watch the Blue Jays in the spring season.

Now that the team is moving, will he visit Dunedin again?

"Probably not," he said. He will "go where the ball is."

But Woodall, who lives in Toronto, never purchased property locally as the Bethells did. Those who put down roots here _ even part-time roots _ seem inclined to keep them.

When Gary Chambers heard the news about the team, "I was dismayed, the same as everybody else."

But Chambers, 65, who is from Peterborough, Ontario, has not considered moving from his part-time home, a condo in Dunedin.

"The Blue Jays are only here five or six weeks," he said. "I'm here six months."

Besides, he still hopes to watch the Blue Jays when they come to Clearwater to play the Phillies during spring training. And next year, Major League Baseball will grace St. Petersburg during the summer, not just the spring.

"Maybe I'll be a Devil Rays fan," he said.

"To me, Dunedin, as far as Florida goes, is like a jewel," Chambers said. "We've probably got the least amount of crime and everything else, and we know a lot of people here. We've been here 20 years."

Fred Finlayson, 68, a retired vice president of a pharmaceutical company, loves Dunedin, too. But he doesn't deny his disappointment.

As 13-year members of the local Blue Jays Boosters, he and his wife, Jan, enjoyed the annual welcome back dinners for the team, which drew players, managers and city officials.

He liked attending the annual Blue Jays golf tournament.

And sitting in Section 204 of Dunedin Stadium, along with other members of the boosters.

"It's just a big family and now it's going to get broken up."

For the Finlaysons, even the ride to the stadium has been a pleasure.

"My wife and I, we ride our bikes down to the game, and it's a long ride to Sarasota," he said. "We'll have to leave early."