Sarasota feeling like home as club opens workouts today

Facilities seen as much better than Ft. Lauderdale's

February 18, 2010|By Jeff Zrebiec | jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

SARASOTA, Fla. — — In the hours leading to the official start of spring training, workers mounted the Orioles' retired numbers on the Ed Smith Stadium concourse, painted the railings the green that graces Camden Yards and decorated halls and offices with pictures of Brian Roberts, Nick Markakis and Adam Jones.

After years of uncertainty about their long-term spring training home and 14 seasons at an overmatched facility in Fort Lauderdale, the Orioles have arrived here with their history in tow.

"Even in its tentative state, we want to make it feel like home," said Orioles vice president for planning and development Janet Marie Smith as she viewed the stadium Tuesday.

Smith, the mastermind of a series of renovations in recent years at Fenway Park and who presided over the design and construction of Camden Yards, returned to the Orioles in September to lead the $31 million renovation of 20-year-old Ed Smith Stadium and the overhaul of the team's minor league facility at nearby Twin Lakes Park.

Though some improvements have been made to both facilities, and remnants of the Cincinnati Reds, who trained at the Ed Smith complex for a decade, have been removed in favor of Orioles orange and black, the heavy construction won't start until spring training ends in early April.

But even in its current state, the facility offers the Orioles much more than they had in Fort Lauderdale, and has given the club an extra dose of anticipation as it prepares for the 2010 season. The first workout for pitchers and catchers is today, with the first full-team workout Tuesday.

"I think this puts us on par with everybody else," Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail said. "I'm very excited about what we believe the end product will be. We'll have plenty of fields, more than the norm. Our travel is going to be greatly reduced, which means more time on the field and less time on buses. We're going to be [in] close proximity to our minor league operations, and we're going to a city and an area that loves its major league baseball. In Fort Lauderdale, we were an afterthought at best."

Making an impression
A team pep rally here in November attracted 2,500 fans, about 1,000 more than the Orioles expected. By all accounts, ticket sales have been brisk, and most fans who held season tickets for the Reds' spring games have renewed, including ESPN basketball announcer Dick Vitale.

Virginia Haley, head of Sarasota's Convention and Visitors Bureau, said she has received many calls from local business owners looking to get involved with Orioles-related promotions, and other county officials have been pleased with the early results the partnership has yielded.

"Spring training is something we've done in this town for over 80 years, so we know how to do it," Sarasota County Deputy Administrator Dave Bullock said. He was the lead negotiator in the deal, under which the Orioles signed a 30-year lease in exchange for $31.2 million in county and state money. "The Orioles have made a good impression, and I think the community has already embraced them. There's always a naysayer here or there. It's a democracy, so people get to do that, but overwhelmingly, there's been clear support."

In December, Sarasota Citizens for Responsible Government and Citizens for Sunshine filed a lawsuit that accuses county officials of violating open-meetings laws in their negotiations with the Orioles. Team and county officials are confident the suit won't endanger Sarasota as the team's long-term spring training home, but it could delay the renovation projects, which are to be completed in time for next year's spring training.

A clear improvement
While there are still parts of the Ed Smith complex clearly in need of an upgrade, you probably won't hear much complaining from Orioles players, who dealt with substandard conditions at Fort Lauderdale Stadium. The clubhouse carpet was badly stained, and there were numerous leaks in the ceiling. The weight room consisted of a tent in the players' parking lot that often was inundated by leaves, and there was no dining room for the players.

"We had some great times in Fort Lauderdale, and I know they did everything they could to accommodate our needs, but I think this is a great move for us," said second baseman Roberts, the longest-tenured Oriole. "Sarasota will be much more befitting of a major league organization."

The field at Fort Lauderdale Stadium had grown so bad that many opposing players refused to take infield practice and several teams complained to Major League Baseball. The Orioles had three fields compared with the five they have now. Ed Smith Stadium has functional lights, enabling the Orioles to play night games, something they couldn't do in Fort Lauderdale.

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