Take me out to th Ball Game

The At­lanta Braves join other MLB teams in Southwest Florida

Times of the Islands - - For Kids - BY JA­COB OGLES

Base­ball holds a spe­cial po­si­tion in our cul­ture. It's Amer­ica's pas­time, the sport of song and nurs­ery rhyme. It's the cel­e­bra­tion of "root, root, root"- ing for the home team and the sor­row of that mo­ment "mighty Casey" has struck out. In Southwest Florida, the sport brings more than rowdy cheers to sta­di­ums dur­ing spring train­ing. The re­gion hosts no ma­jor me­trop­o­lis of the size re­quired to house a pro­fes­sional sports or­ga­ni­za­tion year-round but holds a key place in the fan com­mu­nity none­the­less. This is Red Sox Na­tion and Twins Coun­try. It means go­ing to Rays' home games with­out cross­ing the Sun­shine Sky­way Bridge. It's the Ori­oles' magic and the Pi­rates' plun­der. And start­ing this sea­son, it's the Talk­ing Chop— sound­ing from a posh sports venue in North Port—as the Deep South's fa­vorite team finds its way to par­adise. When the At­lanta Braves holds its fi­nal spring train­ing game of the 2019 sea­son in a brand-new sta­dium in West Vil­lages this year, the re­gion of­fi­cially be­comes the off-sea­son heart of Ma­jor League Base­ball. "This is the per­fect lo­ca­tion for our team and we couldn't be more ex­cited to be part of Sara­sota County and West Vil­lages," ex­plains Braves CEO Terry McGuirk. With six teams head­quar­tered be­tween Braden­ton and Fort My­ers, a greater con­cen­tra­tion of pro­fes­sional sports teams con­verge here than any­where out­side of Greater Phoenix. Like the movie Field of Dreams, "If you build it, they will come."

HOME RUN LEGACY

An of­fi­cial his­tory of the Grape­fruit League traces Florida's con­nec­tion to spring train­ing back to 1888 when the Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als prac­ticed for three weeks in Jack­sonville. Con­sid­er­ing that trip be­came an in­tro­duc­tion to the Sun­shine State for a catcher named Con­nie Mack, it de­serves some recog­ni­tion for its long im­pact on the re­gion's pol­i­tics and na­tional iden­tity. But the Na­tion­als had a crummy sea­son that year, and when Mack as a team man­ager took the Philadel­phia Ath­let­ics to train in Florida a few years later, the same thing hap­pened. So spring train­ing didn't truly start in earnest un­til the Chicago Cubs set up shop in Tampa in 1913. The St. Louis Browns were in St. Peters­burg the same year. The fol­low­ing spring, Mack took the Ath­let­ics back to Jack­sonville and the St. Louis Car­di­nals set up in St. Au­gus­tine. An ex­hi­bi­tion league thus came to be. By 1915, the Philadel-phia Phillies came to St. Pete and launched a win­ning streak. Su­per­sti­tion be­ing what it is in base­ball, Florida turned into the place to prac­tice. The Cards started play­ing off-sea­son games in Braden­ton in 1919, the first team to take spring train­ing south of Tampa Bay. Then the Bos­ton Red Sox started play­ing in Sara­sota in 1933 and the ex­pan­sion fur­ther south con­tin­ued. With time, sta­di­ums be­came more elab­o­rate, the pub­lic con­tracts more ex­pen­sive but the leases much longer. The Grape­fruit League in re­cent years grav­i­tated more to­ward the Gulf Coast with each new sta­dium ne­go­ti­a­tion. More­over, ev­ery one of the teams in the re­gion now has a decades-long con­tract to main­tain spring train­ing in their cur­rent lo­cales, en­sur­ing base­ball re­mains a part of Gulf Coast cul­ture for at least a gen­er­a­tion. Cur­rently, Braden­ton houses the Pitts­burgh Pi­rates at LECOM Park. The Bal­ti­more Ori­oles play at Ed Smith Sta­dium in Sara­sota. Char­lotte Sports Park in Port Char­lotte is the site of the Tampa Bay Rays' spring train­ing. The Min­nesota Twins pitch at Ham­mond Sta­dium in Fort My­ers and across town, the Bos­ton Red Sox play ball at JetBlue Park.

A NEW STA­DIUM

The At­lanta Braves had hoped to host its first full spring train­ing sea­son in North Port this year. But con­struc­tion de­lays prompted a de­ci­sion to hold most of the sea­son at its for­mer spring train­ing home, the ESPN Wide World of Sports Com­plex in the Walt Dis­ney World Re­sort near Or­lando.

Vir­ginia Ha­ley, pres­i­dent of Visit Sara­sota County, says the ar­rival of the team opens up pos­si­bil­i­ties for tourism in the re­gion as well.

How­ever, on Sun­day, March 24, the Braves will hold an ex­hi­bi­tion against the Rays atthe new sta­dium in­side the West Vil­lages com­mu­nity. At that point, the team's com­mit­ment to Southwest Florida be­gins and a legacy of Gulf Coast base­ball con­tin­ues. "It's great now to have a des­ti­na­tion part­ner like the At­lanta Braves," says Marty Black, gen­eral man­ager for the West Vil­lages, which do­nated the land for the sta­dium. Lo­cated in a brand-new com­mu­nity in the North Port city lim­its, the ar­rival of spring train­ing cen­ters life in the neigh­bor­hood around base­ball. Vir­ginia Ha­ley, pres­i­dent of Visit Sara­sota County, says the ar­rival of the team opens up pos­si­bil­i­ties for tourism in the re­gion as well. The Braves' fan base runs through­out the South, she says. And giv­ing rea­son for many res­i­dents of such a huge re­gion of the coun­try to visit North Port each spring could rev­o­lu­tion­ize the hos­pi­tal­ity area in the rare beach-less city on the coast. And it will do for some time. The Braves, Sara­sota County, North Port and West Vil­lages in 2017 en­tered into a $100 mil­lion deal that will keep the Braves in town for at least 30 years.

EX­TRA IN­NINGS

Such deals have be­come the norm. The Bos­ton Red Sox in 2012 moved from City of Palms near down­town Fort My­ers to JetBlue Park south of town, go­ing into pris­tine, mod­ern fa­cil­i­ties that cost a pretty penny, but com­mit­ted to stay in Lee County for three decades. And when the Ori­oles left fa­cil­i­ties on the east coast to take over a heav­ily ren­o­vated Ed Smith Sta­dium in Sara­sota, the club inked a deal for a sim­i­lar pe­riod of time. When the Rays moved into Char­lotte Sports Park, the or­ga­ni­za­tion signed a 20-year deal. Mean­while, the Pi­rates in Braden­ton and Twins in Fort My­ers in re­cent years signed their own 30-year con­tracts to stay put. For the teams, it's good to put down stakes in­stead of con­stantly look­ing to­ward the next pub­lic ne­go­ti­a­tion. "We're here un­til 2044; says Mark Weber, the Twins' Florida busi­ness op­er­a­tions man­ager. "We've es­sen­tially be­come res­i­dents of Southwest Florida." In fact, Weber lives here year-round, and notes that while spring train­ing typ­i­cally spans six weeks a year, there's base­ball hap­pen­ing ev­ery month at Ham­mond Sta­dium. The sta­dium also houses the Fort My­ers Mir­a­cle, a mi­nor league af­fil­i­ate of the Twins, just as the Char­lotte Sports Park hosts the Char­lotte Sand Crabs, LECOM Park the Braden­ton Ma­raud­ers and JetBlue Park the Gulf Coast Red Sox. David Rovine, vice pres­i­dent of Ori­oles-Sara­sota op­er­a­tions, says fa­cil­i­ties in Southwest Florida pro­vide year-round player de­vel­op­ment and ath­letic train­ing, from fan­tasy leagues to phys­i­cal re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion. And the con­tri­bu­tions pay div­i­dends for the host com­mu­nity. "In the nine years since mov­ing Ma­jor League spring train­ing

to Sara­sota, the Ori­oles are mak­ing a sub­stan­tial and pos­i­tive im­pact in the com­mu­nity," Rovine points out. That part­ner­ship is what the or­ga­ni­za­tion al­ways en­vi­sioned." lie says that the ball club alone has spent $15 mil­lion in ho­tel room nights for play­ers and staff. Re­ports show the team has gen­er­ated about $97 mil­lion in an­nual eco­nomic im­pact for the Sara­sota area. And of course, there's the tourism. Rovine notes the Ori­oles—as part of its re­la­tion­ship with Sara­sota—mar­ket the com­mu­nity across multi-plat­form me­dia in the Bal­ti­more and Wash­ing­ton, D.C., re­gion. That's re­sulted in a 300 per­cent in­crease in vis­i­tors to Sara­sota from the mid-At­lantic re­gion in the first quar­ter of each cal­en­dar year.

COME FOR GAMES, STAY FOR WEATHER

Weber adds that if you look at flight num­bers into Southwest Florida In­ter­na­tional Air­port, the top two orig­i­nat­ing mar­kets con­sis­tently each year are Min­nesota and Bos­ton. "And ul­ti­mately, a lot of the peo­ple com­ing here from the up­per Mid­west to watch spring train­ing de­cide they want to live here," he says. That's not just base­ball, of course. Many come for the games and stay for the weather. Which in a sense an­swers the big­gest ques­tion about why so many teams hold their spring train­ing camps in Southwest Florida each year. For sure, rea­sons grow each sea­son: The Braves three years ago in­formed Dis­ney of the team's in­ten­tion to leave the Or­lando area to get closer to other ball clubs and cut down travel times for play­ers. Now, the vast ma­jor­ity of Florida op­er­a­tions hap­pens on the west coast, in­clud­ing the Toronto Blue Jays in Dunedin, the Phillies in Clear­wa­ter and the New York Yan­kees in Tampa. Smaller air­ports in Sara­sota, Punta Gorda and Fort My­ers also al­low more fluid travel for fans and team staff be­tween home­towns and Florida. And ev­ery player with fam­ily en­joys tak­ing their chil­dren to the beach. But why train in Florida in the first place, rather than stay in mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar sta­di­ums at home? Sure, it's good to take the team some­where away from the dis­trac­tions of home, and it's good to have ex­hi­bi­tion games pre-sea­son, whether with the Grape­fruit League in Florida or the Cac­tus League in Ari­zona. But base­ball, the Astrodome aside, gets played out­doors, and the great ma­jor­ity of Ma­jor League Base­ball teams can't do that in Feb­ru­ary and keep their play­ers healthy. "Have you been to Minneapolis in Feb­ru­ary and March?" Weber asks, while laugh­ing. "I guess it's fine if you want to play in 2 feet of snow."

The Ori­oles host a Feb­ru­ary 2018 spring train­ing game at Ed Smith Sta­dium in Sara­sota.

A Bal­ti­more fan cel­e­brates in Sara­sota at an Ori­oles spring train­ing game.

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