DUNEDIN, Fla. – Experiencing a full spring training inside the Toronto Blue Jays’ Florida home has shown Mark Shapiro how much there is to like about his team’s current situation in Dunedin.
Getting to and from the waterfront city of 37,000 is easy thanks to its proximity to the convenient and efficient Tampa airport, it’s located near a cluster of other Florida-based clubs, many players live nearby and it’s an area the team’s fans like to visit. All are strong incentives to stay put long-term.
Still, the Blue Jays president and CEO sees issues, significant ones, if the team is to remain in Dunedin once its current lease that runs through 2017 expires.
"My biggest frustration has been the disconnect from the minor-leagues," Shapiro says in an interview. "That is not small. That is real."
To that end, the Blue Jays’ negotiations with the City of Dunedin are now focused on obtaining additional land at the Bobby Mattick Training Center to house a training and development complex along with another field and a half. Renovations would also be made to Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, which would be used solely to host Grapefruit League games.
Going that route wouldn’t eliminate the 5.6-kilometre separation between the two sites, but the Blue Jays would do everything but play at the Mattick, creating a single home for the entire organization.
"It’s not a big deal if the facility is a state of the art training facility and the fields are beautiful and you have every single thing you could possibly want over there," says Shapiro. "We’d renovate the stadium over here, as well. The conversations now are within that framework."
Such a set-up is similar to the facility the Cleveland Indians, Shapiro’s former club, and the Cincinnati Reds share in Goodyear, Ariz. The clubs do everything at their complex before busing a kilometre to the stadium where their Cactus League games are played.
The drive in Dunedin would be far less convenient, but Shapiro argues that since most players play in only 10-12 of the team’s spring road games anyway, the plan is workable. Right now the Blue Jays are housed at the stadium, while their minor-league side is based at Mattick.
"That’s a cultural challenge for an organization," says Shapiro. "It creates some distance and lack of connectivity from the player development organization to a major-league team, which creates a challenge in building the identity of the players you want."
The disconnect can have far-reaching consequences.
"There are casual interactions in weight rooms, things that happen where it’s good modelling for the minor-league players to see the way those guys (in the majors) work," says Shapiro. "Even as important is the ability for us as an organization to be together. You’re only together one time a year. The interactions we can have as a front office with the player development field staff, it may only be (six) kilometres, but the process of getting in a car and driving over there, you have to really plan it. The days are full, the days are busy, there are no casual interactions, you can’t just say, ‘Hey, Jon Harris is throwing, I’m going to walk down and see him.’ You have to plan that out or it doesn’t happen."
The Blue Jays expect to use the current setup again for spring training in 2017, by which time they should also be well down the road on a new facility.
So far, Shapiro hasn’t explored any additional options, even though there are plans with drawings to expand the Philadelphia Phillies’ top-notch spring facility in neighbouring Clearwater to house the Blue Jays, as well.
They’re yet to even examine it, although that can change quickly.
"We have not had any concrete conversations or anything presented to us or entertained any alternative other than focusing on getting a deal done with Dunedin," says Shapiro. "There’s going to be a point in time when we’ll diligently look at alternatives, the next set of meetings will lay out what that time is that we either have to have concrete advancement of our talks or we’re probably going to start to look at alternatives. As of right now, the genuine answer to that is we are strictly negotiating with and exploring Dunedin because we feel that’s the best chance to get something done."
Before the Blue Jays’ spring opener earlier this month, Dunedin Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski addressed a crowd of 4,643, and said the city is working hard to keep the team from moving elsewhere.
Shapiro believes the city’s support makes a real difference.
"It’s absolutely clear how passionate the community is about wanting us here and how much pride they take in having us here," says Shapiro. "Among the list of things that I think are important, that is important. When you’re an afterthought for the community, getting anything done, having the attention you need, getting the support you’d want to do things or having support for the players is a constant challenge. To feel like a community is galvanized around you being there is a positive thing."
The rest is in the dollars and cents.