Dunedin, Toronto Blue Jays yet to talk about spring training site

Toronto Blue Jays pitcher R.A. Dickey throws during warmups in spring training in Dunedin in February. The team’s president said in March that the team was unhappy with the facilities.
Toronto Blue Jays pitcher R.A. Dickey throws during warmups in spring training in Dunedin in February. The team’s president said in March that the team was unhappy with the facilities.
Published June 10, 2013

DUNEDIN — Three months after news broke that the Toronto Blue Jays were considering ditching their Dunedin spring training home for Palm Beach Gardens on Florida's east coast, this city still hasn't managed to schedule negotiations with team officials.

Jays president Paul Beeston has yet to follow up on Mayor Dave Eggers' emails and phone calls with concrete plans, and Eggers' last communication with Beeston was about a month ago.

But city officials say they're not discouraged by what appears to be a cold shoulder from the team, which has never held spring training anywhere but Dunedin.

The Jays' lease doesn't expire for another four years, and city officials said they understand that the team has a responsibility to explore all options.

Meanwhile, Dunedin officials are visiting other spring training ballparks, meeting with merchants and other stakeholders, and drafting a brochure that showcases what Dunedin and Pinellas County have to offer a Major League Baseball team.

"We're not trying to assign motives or read too deeply into these things," said City Manager Rob DiSpirito. "I'm sure they're spending their time doing what they feel they need to do. We'll just continue to let them know we're interested to meet with them any time and anywhere."

Added Eggers: "We're going through a lot of 'what if' scenarios and doing our homework so we're ready to jump into these discussions. Until we hear differently, that's the way we're going to keep working."

Much of Dunedin's information about the Jays, whose 15-year lease at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium expires in 2017, has come from the media, city officials say.

Beeston announced in a Canadian newspaper in March that the team was unsatisfied with the nearly 4-mile distance between Dunedin's stadium and its spring training facilities and was scouting opportunities for more modern digs elsewhere.

In April, Scripps Treasure Coast newspapers reported that legislation proposing to shift millions in state cash to cities that renovate or build new two-team stadiums was aimed at paving the way for the Jays and Houston Astros to share a facility in Palm Beach Gardens.

In an interview last week with the Tampa Bay Times, Astros attorney Giles Kibbe said the team is "interested in the Blue Jays joining us," but "that'll be up to the Blue Jays to decide."

Kibbe acknowledged that the move from the Astros' current spring training home in Kissimmee to South Florida would benefit Astros owner Jim Crane, who owns the Floridian Golf Club in Palm Beach Gardens and is about to build a home there. He said the destination is also an easy trip for Houston fans, who could hop direct flights into Palm Beach Gardens on United Airlines.

But Kibbe said the team's main goal is moving closer to the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals, which are already training in Palm Beach County, and the New York Mets in nearby St. Lucie County.

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"What we would like to do," Kibbe said, "is create a spring training hub ... with five teams within this 35-mile area, where we would have an area fans could travel to from all over the country, stay in one location, go to multiple spring training games."

Media reports indicate Palm Beach county and city government officials are eyeing an 82-acre site between Central Boulevard and Interstate 95 for a potential stadium.

Tom McNicholas, a spokesman for Palm Beach Gardens, wouldn't give specifics, but said more than two teams have shown interest in moving there. Until the state opens its application process for stadium funding, he said, the city is studying things like the traffic impact and cost of building a facility that could hold "at least one, potentially two," teams.

Jays president Beeston, who said previously that "in an ideal world" the team would stay in Dunedin, did not respond to phone calls or an email seeking comment for this story. Jays vice president for communications Jay Stenhouse said Beeston wouldn't negotiate through the media.

Meanwhile, Eggers has reached out to Beeston about every two weeks, offering to fly to Toronto for a meeting and requesting an approximate time line of when negotiations might begin. At least once, Beeston emailed a short reply that he was busy but would be visiting within two weeks. That didn't happen.

Before the Jays re-upped their most recent lease in 2002, Eggers recalled, the team also checked out other training sites, including in Las Vegas. This time around, he noted, it was the Astros — not the Jays — who initiated the look at the east coast.

"I want to give them time to do it. At the same time, I hope they give us the same respect," he said, adding that negotiations were always expected to begin this year.

"I don't think we're off schedule at all. Granted, I've gotten a bit frustrated. But I think it's just part of the process," Eggers said. "I'm not naive. I'm cautiously optimistic that we're going to have some fruitful discussions about their staying here."

As for why Beeston hasn't gotten back to Dunedin, the Jays' Dunedin-based senior consultant Ken Carson speculated that the head honcho is busy helping the team regroup from this season's poor showing — the team is in last place in the American League East.

He denied rumors that the Jays-Astros pairing is a done deal or that a move down south is the Jays' preferred option.

"As the teams' leases get toward the end, it's common for cities to start courting them," Carson said. "Everybody wants you, and maybe a little more us because everyone wants the Canadian tourists in their area."

Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153, or @KeyonnaSummers on Twitter.