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Renovations mean a new ball game for the Jays

This time of year, the quiet makes way for the imagination.

As a brisk fall breeze carries the sweet smell of Bermuda grass, you can almost hear the crack of bats connecting with baseballs and the "thwap" of a fastballs hitting gloves.

Welcome to the new Cecil P. Englebert Complex _ one-half of the Toronto Blue Jays Major League Baseball team's renovated spring training facility, nestled off County Road 1 on Solon Avenue in Dunedin.

The 23-acre complex, expanded from 17 acres, is primarily used by the Jays' minor league franchises. But it is as impressive as the new and improved Dunedin Stadium at Grant Field across town.

Just past the double doors of the 34,000-square-foot Englebert building, the carpet sports a paisley design in the Jays' colors: red and blue. Visitors move along a long hallway lined with offices, meeting space and locker rooms.

In all the locker rooms here, the team opted to keep the original wood lockers, installed 20 years ago.

"They're still in pretty good shape," said Ken Carson, director of Florida operations for the Jays, glancing at the nicks, pinholes and scratches on the lockers.

Their smell, though, is similar to that of burnt power steering fluid.

The baby bed in the nearby shower seems eerily out of place until Carson explains that it's there as practical joke on one of the team's minor league coaches. He describes the coach as not being very tall.

Then there's the 3,000-square-foot workout room, with adjacent medical training room. The workout area sports about 30 pieces of heavy exercise equipment _ including a treadmill, dumbbells, free weights, exercise bikes and other weight machines.

Before the renovation, Carson said, the teams worked out in small storage-like rooms with no air conditioning. Not an attractive setup, he said, for reeling in prospective players.

"You really have to keep up with the other teams because it's important to the players," Carson said of the fitness room. "If you don't keep up _ when the player becomes a free agent _ they're going to take a lot of that into consideration and could be a reason for them to take a hike and go somewhere else."

In March, Jays president and CEO Paul Godfrey showed off the renovated stadium and administrative building on S Douglas Avenue.

He took fans on a guided tour of the facility's batting cage, new fitness room, locker rooms and clubhouse.

The walk-through then moved to the second level, where the team's administrative offices overlook the baseball field.

"I personally am so proud of this place," said Carson. "It turned out a lot better than we thought because I didn't think $14-million would get us this much."

But it almost didn't happen.

The team and the city originally agreed to $12-million in renovations _ mostly with public money. But then the team said the promised package of improvements could not be done for less than $13.5-million.

Fearing unknown costs associated with a potential legal battle and the possibility that the team would leave town, the city agreed.

The new deal requires the Jays to advance the city $250,000 in rent, loan the city another $250,000 and hand over naming rights to the stadium.

The city, in turn, agreed to put up $500,000 _ on top of its share of a $3-million bill it shared with the Jays _ and the two sides would ask the state for a matching $1-million grant.

However, the state has limited what it gives to Dunedin to $41,000 per month. The state already pays that as part of $6-million it has pledged for the stadium deal. It will thus be some 20 years before the city will see that other money.

In the meantime, the city pulled the additional $1.3-million out of the city's general fund to complete the renovation.

"It really is a first-class facility," said John Lawrence, city manager. "It's a tremendous upgrade from what it was and I think the end product was well worth it."

Last month, city commissioners appointed a task force of community and business leaders to come up with ideas to market Dunedin's effort to sell the naming rights of Dunedin Stadium at Grant Field.

City leaders say they hope to get somewhere between $50,000 to $150,000 per year for the rights.

Perhaps the most impressive feature of the newly-renovated Englebert Complex is the lookout tower, situated in the middle of four of the five practice fields.

Carson climbed the two flights of steps of the gazebo-style tower last week, looked around and smiled.

"It was a long process but it was definitely worth it," he said before stretching out his arms and gesturing at the campus. "It doesn't get any better than this."

_ Leon M. Tucker can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or

At a glance

Cecil P. Englebert Recreation Complex, 1700 Solon Ave.

+ Englebert Complex is situated on on 23 acres.

+ Four offices

+ 150 lockers

+ 120 parking spaces

+ Bermuda grass on the fields from spring until winter

+ Rye grass in on the fields during the winter months

+ Four dump truck loads of Georgia clay were brought in for the infield

Dunedin Stadium at Grant Field, 375 S Douglas Ave.

+ The facility is on 7 acres

+ 5,510 seats inside Grant Field

+ Four restrooms _ two women's, two men's

+ Three concession stands

+ 11 offices

+ 70 lockers

+ 238 parking spaces

+ Bermuda Grass on the fields from spring until winter

+ Rye grass in on the fields during the winter months

+ Four dump truck loads of Georgia clay on each infield