O's Near Deal On Spring Camp Site

July 22, 2009|By Dan Connolly | Dan Connolly,dan.connolly@baltsun.com

The Orioles are awaiting three governmental approvals in Florida this afternoon that would secure them a new spring training home for the next 30 years.

The Orioles and Sarasota County officials have reached a tentative agreement that would relocate the club's spring training headquarters from Fort Lauderdale, in the southeastern part of Florida, to Sarasota on the state's western coast, starting in February.

As part of the potential deal, $31.2 million in state grant money and a county tourism tax would be used to fully renovate 22-year-old Ed Smith Stadium, which hosted the Cincinnati Reds from 1998 to 2009, and dilapidated Twin Lakes Park, the Orioles' current minor league complex.

Most important, for the first time in 15 years, the Orioles' minor league and major league spring facilities would be within a 15-minute drive instead of on opposite coasts. No other organization has minor and major league camps more than a few miles apart.

"We definitely need a place where our minor leaguers are within closer than three hours," Orioles right fielder Nick Markakis said. "I think this will definitely help."

The Orioles won't officially discuss the proposal, though they are sending president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail and attorney Alan Rifkin to Sarasota today.

"The club is refraining from comment at this time," said Greg Bader, the Orioles' director of communications. "Perhaps we'll have more to say following [today's] votes."

For the long-awaited move from obsolete Fort Lauderdale Stadium to become a reality, however, three things have to happen today.

The City of Sarasota has to approve an inter-local agreement that would transfer the Ed Smith property to Sarasota County for $1. Within that agreement, the county and the Orioles are seeking environmental indemnification from the city for the property, which decades earlier may have served as a landfill.

Dave Bullock, deputy county administrator for Sarasota County, said he and attorneys from the county and city spent much of Tuesday crafting specific provisions that he believes should be suitable for both sides.

City officials are expected to meet at 1 p.m. today to discuss the arrangement.

If the inter-local agreement is approved, it would be passed on to the Sarasota County Board of Commissioners for a vote during its 1:30 p.m. meeting. Assuming the inter-local deal has city approval, it likely will be approved by the county commission.

The next step, though, could be the most precarious. The county commission must then approve the lease agreement with the Orioles, which would include $7.5 million in state grants and $23.7 million in a county tourism tax. The Orioles would not be required to spend any money on the upgrades but would be responsible for operation and maintenance costs.

The five-member commission has rejected previous proposals involving the Orioles, but this one is more likely to get the four votes needed for ratification.

"We have put together a reasonable deal with a significant amount of details in it, and I am optimistic the board will look favorably on it," Bullock said. "But it is their decision, and they get to study it and ask questions and then make a determination."

Although specific renovation plans are not concrete, the Orioles would play in the current Ed Smith Stadium in 2010 and then a nearly complete renovation would begin in April. The stadium's capacity would increase from 7,500 to 8,500 and current amenities, such as the concession stands, fields and clubhouses, would be leveled and reconstructed.

"It will look like a different stadium," Bullock said.

There will be at least three practice fields in addition to the stadium at the renovated complex and five more at the Orioles' minor league headquarters a few miles away.

The Twin Lakes Park facility has been roundly criticized as subpar, with chicken-wire lockers and uneven playing fields. As part of the proposal, it would be completely upgraded and a Cal Ripken Youth Baseball Academy built alongside it to be used year-round.

The two Sarasota complexes would encompass 89 acres and provide plenty of room for all of the organization's players - a primary goal of MacPhail's when he took over the team in 2007.

Club executive vice president John Angelos, principal owner Peter Angelos' son, has been working on upgrading the spring training facilities for several years, first attempting to improve the Fort Lauderdale Stadium complex. But the city could never gain expansion approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees the adjacent Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport. Meanwhile, Fort Lauderdale Stadium had few amenities, a faulty lighting system and a parking lot tent for a weight room.

"Anything would be an upgrade," Orioles first baseman Aubrey Huff said. "Don't get me wrong. I love Fort Lauderdale and it's an awesome place to be. But you walk into the clubhouse, and you get that musty smell of asbestos. And then you walk outside, and you get the jet fuel smell. The infield was terrible and the weight room was a tent. It was just bad."

The Orioles have a one-year option on Fort Lauderdale Stadium, which they can reject at any time. They had also negotiated with the Florida communities of Vero Beach and Fort Myers, but Sarasota was preferred because of the proximity of the club's minor league complex.

"I enjoy Sarasota. It's a great little town," second baseman Brian Roberts said. "I think as much as anything, we need to get our minor league and our major league teams together. Travel will be nice, too. I think there are a lot of advantages to it, definitely."

Baltimore Sun reporters Jeff Zrebiec and Mike Klingaman contributed to this article.

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