DUNEDIN — Downtown Dunedin was awash with the chatter of birds Sunday afternoon, from the usual sparrows and songbirds to the slightly louder flock of Toronto Blue Jays fans that descended on the small town for the first game of baseball’s spring training season.
Less than 20 minutes away from Dunedin’s Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, which hosted the Jays and the New York Yankees, the Philadelphia Phillies settled back into their home at Clearwater’s Brighthouse Field. The Grapefruit League games mark the 100th anniversary of spring training baseball in Pinellas County, said Jim Schnur, president of the Pinellas County Historical Society and special collections director at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
Baseball planted its roots at St. Petersburg’s Al Lang Stadium with the St. Louis Browns in 1914, and over the years helped nine teams and baseball greats like Babe Ruth and Ted Williams prepare for the regular season. The Philadelphia Phillies were the first major league team to hold spring training in Tampa Bay area’s warm climate in 1889, and now the region is home to six teams, including the Yankees in Tampa, Detroit Tigers in Lakeland, Baltimore Orioles in Sarasota and the Pittsburgh Pirates in Bradenton.
However, with seemingly constant speculation about teams leaving the area or state for better facilities and more incentives, officials have fought to keep the spring training tradition alive.
Perhaps no community has fought harder than Dunedin, where city leaders have spent about a year persuading Jays officials to renew their contract with the stadium before it expires in 2017.
For fans, a move may not be a bad idea as long as it’s somewhere closer to home, said Stratford, Ontario, resident Sherry Heibein. Heibein and 11 of her family members, including an 8-year-old, two 3-year-olds and a 2-month-old, piled into two vehicles for a two-day, 20-hour drive to see Sunday’s game, an 8-2 victory by the Yankees.
It was the first time the family made the trek, which is doubling as a vacation to Disney World and an excuse to take in a Tampa Bay Lightning game.
But the family would have gone anywhere to escape the below-zero temperatures in their hometowns.
“This is our first time coming to Dunedin for a game, but the weather was a big motivator,” Heibein said. “Even if they move, we’re fans, we support our home team and Canadians will go wherever.”
But for Yankees fan and Bronx resident Jimmy Kos, a Tampa area spring training game is the only way to go.
Kos planned his trip to see recent New York transplants and Dunedin residents Joanne and Lou Ross after securing tickets to Sunday’s game against the Blue Jays, but the dedication wouldn’t be there if his team moved spring training to Arizona, he said. Even among other Florida spring training spots, Tampa wins out simply for the fishing.
“I can see a Yankee game back home, but I like the fishing, eating, drinking, partying here and I don’t like shoveling snow out of my driveway,” Kos said. “Would I go somewhere else? Absolutely not.”
The Jays have trained in Dunedin since their expansion season in 1977, and though the city is still having conversations with the team about improving the stadium and facilities, Dunedin Mayor Dave Eggers said it’s “starting to get more signals” the team will stay.
In the meantime, local businesses and fans are a visual reminder of support for the team.
Banners welcoming the Jays and their fans adorn street lamps and businesses sell authentic Blue Jays gear alongside the more commonplace antique collectibles. Local businesses and homes near the stadium transform their property into fan parking lots, some raising money for the nearby National Armed Services & Law Enforcement Memorial Museum and others, like Bauser’s Full Liquor Bar, offering fans free beer with their $10 parking spot.
The Blue Jays draw thousands of visitors to Dunedin, including a huge Canadian population that will often stay for two to four months, said Dunedin Chamber of Commerce President Lynn Wargo.
The chamber will field questions from an average 100 people a day asking about the Blue Jays during spring training, Wargo said. If those fans took their vacation homes and entertainment dollars elsewhere, the result would be “profound” for the small community, she said.
“We’re really hoping they’ll make the decision to stay here because they have a huge fan base here and our economy is so tied to the team,” Wargo said as she walked the Pinellas Trail to get to the Sunday’s game and support her beloved Blue Jays. “It’s not just Jays fans, the games draw in Yankees, Pirates, Phillies, and it has a huge impact on our community.”