Nothing is springing up in search for Florida home Orioles' 1993 setup likely to stay same

March 29, 1992|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Staff Writer STAFF GRAPHIC

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- When and if the Orioles get into a position to settle on a permanent spring training facility, they will not lack for options. There are at least 10 communities in Florida alone that are possibilities.

Finding a location that is practical and feasible, however, is another story -- one that has been dragging on for almost a decade. It almost certainly will continue for at least an additional year -- the Orioles are expected to divide their training camp between Sarasota and St. Petersburg again in 1993.

Since the Orioles started looking for an alternative to their outdated setup in Miami in the early 1980s, eight other teams either have relocated within Florida or will do so by next year.

Ever since the late owner Edward Bennett Williams rejected a move to Melbourne in 1984, the Orioles have prowled Florida searching for an area willing to construct a state-of-the-art training facility. Twice, they have swung and missed on tentative proposals in Naples, on the southwestern coast, yet that remains perhaps the most viable long-range possibility.

Funding through a hotel tax had been approved by referendum in Naples, but a lawsuit by the hotel association overturned the action in a court of appeals. The issue goes back on the ballot in September, and the Orioles are still interested -- but not to the exclusion of other areas.

"When the rug was pulled out from under us just when we were ready to get going, we had to reconsider our options," said Orioles president Larry Lucchino. "We are still interested in Collier County [which encompasses Naples], but we're not alone. There are other teams looking for better, permanent facilities."

One of those teams is the expansion Florida Marlins, who will be based in Miami starting next year. However, the Marlins are expected to end up in Winter Haven, which the Boston Red Sox are leaving after this year.

"They [the Marlins] have looked into Collier County, but on a different piece of land -- one we don't think is feasible," said Lucchino.

For the past four years, the Orioles have used the Twin Lakes Park complex in Sarasota for the first two weeks of their training ++ camp -- and for all preseason work for their entire minor-league system.

"It's no secret we're happy with the setup at Twin Lakes," said Lucchino, "but stability is our first choice."

He said finding a permanent spring home for the entire organization "is a top priority, but as long as we have a good, solid working arrangement in St. Petersburg, it is not an acute problem. Our setup this year is perhaps not ideal, but the manager has been able to run a productive, well-organized training camp.

"And the Mets worked in the same facilities for 20 years and had some success in that period of time."

However, the Mets moved out of St. Petersburg because of the same hardships the Orioles have discovered. First, players have to dress and practice at one facility and play at another. Second, there's no clubhouse at Al Lang Stadium (where the St. Louis Cardinals have squatters' rights). And third, they can't work an entire organization on the same site.

In searching for a new home in the past, the Orioles may have made a mistake by tuning in solely on Naples.

"We did what we thought was the honorable thing, and put all of our eggs in one basket," said club vice president Tom Daffron, who has handled most of the negotiations for a spring-training home.

"We don't want to get into a situation where we have a 'site of the week,' but once we get past this Opening Day, we're going to get out and take a look at some of the other possibilities," Daffron said.

Daffron will need to map an exact itinerary to hit all the spots in a reasonable amount of time. From Daytona Beach, which is probably too far north on the east coast, to Lake County, which is probably too far north in the central/western part of Florida, to Melbourne and Naples, there are a lot of possibilities.

Only a few, however, would be attractive to the Orioles. Naples is well-established in that category. St. Petersburg, especially if the Tampa Bay area is left without a major-league team of its own, and Pasco County, just north of Tampa, offer the most intriguing possibilities.

Others include Manatee County, north of Sarasota, Orlando and Winter Haven, both centrally located.

There is also the continuing possibility that the Chicago White Sox, because of real-estate interests of owner Jerry Reinsdorf, might leave Sarasota for Arizona. Should that happen, the Orioles would jump at the chance to move into the complex at Ed Smith Stadium.

"Our No. 1 preference is the west coast of Florida, and we like training in Sarasota very much," Lucchino said. "If the White Sox ever explored other alternatives, we'd definitely be interested."

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