Negotiations and threats to leave Fort Lauderdale Stadium seemed to drag on for years. But on Wednesday, the Baltimore Orioles made an abrupt exit.
The Sarasota City and County Commissions approved agreements that made way for the team to move its spring training operations to Sarasota’s Ed Smith Stadium next spring. And with that, the team is on its way out of South Florida, taking with it the tradition of spring training.
Major League Baseball teams used to be ubiquitous in South Florida. The Orioles made their spring home at now-demolished Bobby Maduro Stadium in Miami from 1959 to 1988. The New York Yankees trained in Fort Lauderdale from 1962 to 1995. The Texas Rangers spent the spring in Pompano Beach; the Atlanta Braves and Montreal Expos in West Palm Beach.
Now the Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals, who share Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, will be our closest teams.
“Anytime you lose an athletic team of that magnitude, whether it’s for spring training or whether it’s for the Super Bowl, athletics is a large part of what makes quality of life issues so important,” Fort Lauderdale City Commissioner Charlotte Rodstrom said. “I really enjoyed having them here, they were part of the fabric of our community.”
At one time it seemed certain the Orioles would stay in Fort Lauderdale. In 2007, the team, Fort Lauderdale and Broward County reached agreement to fund a major overhaul of aging Fort Lauderdale Stadium. But that plan stalled last year when the Federal Aviation Administration said the team would need to pay $1.3 million annually to maintain adjacent Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport.
Despite the city’s efforts, the FAA didn’t budge. And the team continued negotiating with other communities from Vero Beach to Fort Myers, before hammering out the Sarasota deal. The $31.2 million, 30-year deal includes $7.5 million in state funds and $23.7 million from an increase in the county tourist tax. The agreement includes renovations to Ed Smith Stadium and minor league venue Twin Lakes Park and plans for a Cal Ripken Baseball youth academy.
“It is with great excitement that we announce that Sarasota will be our new long-term spring training home,” Orioles Executive Vice President John Angelos said in a statement released by the team.
Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau President Nicki Grossman, who was in Oregon, got a call from the Orioles early Wednesday informing her of the Sarasota deal. While Grossman said she understood the team’s financial predicament, she’s disappointed the region will be losing what the bureau estimates are 19,000 visitors who travel here annually specifically to see the team and pump $25 million into local hotels, restaurants and other businesses. The Orioles also promoted the region in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., area.
“It’s a huge disappointment,” Grossman said.
When some 50 members of the public signed up to speak at a public hearing at the Sarasota county commission, it seemed as though the agreements might never get to a vote. Residents weighed in on whether the deal had been struck in secret and the use of taxpayer dollars for the project when there are other needs in the community; others urged passage of the agreement to preserve baseball in Sarasota and to fund other sports. The commission voted 4-1 for the agreement; their vote came after the city commission voted 3-2 to transfer ownership of the stadium from the city to the county.
The Cincinnati Reds held spring training in Sarasota this past spring, but are moving to Phoenix next year. Rodstrom wished the Orioles well and said at least they will remain in Florida.
The 16 teams that trained in Florida this year drew 1.56 million fans, down from the 1.67 million fans 18 teams in the state drew in 2008. The Orioles averaged 4,588 a game this spring.