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While baseball argues about billions, small towns lose their meager spring windfall

John Romano | Once again, it’s the little people who are forgotten when MLB decides to have another tug-of-war over truckloads of cash.
The sky is brilliant, the stadium is renovated and the gates are still locked at TD Ballpark in Dunedin, where baseball's labor war has begun to affect the local economy.
The sky is brilliant, the stadium is renovated and the gates are still locked at TD Ballpark in Dunedin, where baseball's labor war has begun to affect the local economy. [ John Romano ]
Published Mar. 6

DUNEDIN — The schedule says the New York Yankees are in town, and game time is approaching. The outdoor seating area at Bauser’s bar says otherwise.

With a soft breeze blowing across the patio, the place is strangely quiet on Thursday afternoon. For the moment, it’s just a lot of empty stools, three regulars and the unmistakable pang of something lost.

Typically, on the morning of a Blue Jays spring training game around the corner at TD Ballpark, the crew shows up early at Bauser’s to begin setting up ropes and barricades for the lines that will wind around the bar. Extra supplies will have been ordered and parking lot duties divvied up.

But not today. And not tomorrow, either. Not with Major League Baseball’s owners and players engaged in a bitter economic war that has led to small businesses such as Bauser’s becoming intimately acquainted with the notion of collateral damage.

“It’s so sad,” said bartender Mandy Engblom. “We’ve had a few people come in who had bought tickets for games that have been cancelled, so they’re having to figure out what to do with these tickets, and their hotels or Airbnb. So it’s not just affecting us, it’s affecting so many of these people.

“I should have a full bar here right now and, instead, look at this place. In a normal spring training, I try to work as many games as I can. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s exhausting. By the end of six weeks we’re like, ‘Thank God, it’s over until next year.’ But it’s so much fun, too.”

Spring training is nirvana for baseball fans

The Florida Sports Foundation says spring training has an annual economic impact of $687.1 million in this state. While the money sounds exaggerated, the actual passion for spring training is immeasurable.

It is northerners escaping the cold, and students escaping class. It is retirees sitting in the sun alongside business execs sneaking in a lunchtime beer. It is an unhurried pace, an uncommon proximity and unnatural optimism before the inevitable heartbreak of a 162-game season.

And, yes, once this labor dispute is resolved there will likely be an accelerated spring training in Florida and Arizona. But it won’t be the same, either in revenue or in spirit. The last time baseball had a work stoppage in 1995, spring was held in a 10-to-12-game sprint that ended at the end of April.

Back then, a Gallup poll suggested 69 percent of fans had lost interest in the game due to the strike. Attendance in 1994 had averaged more than 31,000 per game, and it would be another dozen years before MLB crowds got back to that level.

Now, a generation later, those lessons have been forgotten.

“This is the kind of stuff that sours fans,” said Maryville, Tenn., resident Mike Finley, who is vacationing in Dunedin and had just eaten breakfast at the Home Plate Restaurant across the street from TD Ballpark.

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“You can blame the players, you can blame the owners, I blame them both. I’m done with them. You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to watch a Dunedin High baseball game. That’s where I’ll get my baseball. I still love the game, but I’ll watch high school or the SEC.”

Cities have spent millions on spring training complexes

For a place like Dunedin, this notion goes beyond romance or loyalty to a game. Spring training is an economic driver in small towns — Port Charlotte, North Port, Jupiter and Port St. Lucie among them in Florida — and shifting games from March to April could mean a devastating loss of business from snowbirds who aren’t prepared to make last-minute travel changes.

And considering the Blue Jays got a $102 million makeover at TD Ballpark a few years ago, with more than $60 million coming from a combination of city, county and state funds, you could argue that MLB is forsaking its fiduciary responsibilities by failing to provide games across the state.

Dunedin Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski is appreciative of the city’s relationship with the Blue Jays and says tourism is actually booming in Pinellas County this spring because so many people had avoided traveling for two years during the pandemic, but she worries about the long-term effects of the lockout on baseball’s popularity.

“Many of our Canadian visitors or seasonal residents came down anyway, so we’ve been lucky in that sense,” she said. “Our businesses are doing great right now, but the longer this goes on I imagine you’re going to start hearing more unhappiness.

“We have so much going on in Pinellas County with beaches and the arts scene and baseball that we’ve set ourselves up to be resilient enough to withstand this. But I’m not going to lie, it’s very disappointing. Of course, it is.”

Not everyone followed through with their spring break plans in Dunedin. Callum Hughson, a communications specialist at Western University in London, Ontario, has made a spring training pilgrimage nine times before and had plans to come down this month with a friend.

He watched the news of the lockout in early December, and held out some hope for a deal in January, but soon realized the owners were not interested in negotiating until the final minute.

“It’s definitely disappointing because spring training has become an annual tradition for so many of us. It’s the one thing you look forward to during a bleak and miserable Canadian winter,” he said. “You don’t even have to be a big baseball fan to enjoy spring training games, because they’re so laid-back and relaxed. You get to sit in the sun and you get closer to the players than you would anywhere else.

“It’s like watching a high school game with actual Major League Baseball players. I brought my mom once, and she’s not even much of a fan, but you can’t not have a good time in spring training.”

Millionaires vs. Billionaires? Not around here

Back at Bauser’s, another regular has arrived and sat down at the bar. This increases business by 25 percent, which is a sad indictment of the possibilities that existed on a day when Gerrit Cole might have been on the mound for the Yankees against the Blue Jays.

Surely, it’s not lost on anyone around here that MLB produced an estimated $11 billion in revenues in 2021 and still can’t figure out a way to keep the doors unlocked.

“I really feel bad, honestly, for the people at TD Ballpark,” said Bauser’s owner Janet Baustert. “Everybody is focused on the baseball players, but look at all the other, little people. I have a friend who is a seamstress for the Blue Jays and she’s not getting paid. The retirees who work in the concession stand or in the ticket booth depend on that money.

“This is the time of year when we all have a little extra work, make a few extra dollars and have a lot of fun. It’s all just very sad.”

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