O's spring home is a hit — for team, fans

April 03, 2010|By Peter Schmuck

SARASOTA, Fla. — The Orioles aren't even bothering to be diplomatic anymore.

They spent 14 springs trying to pass off the Fort Lauderdale Stadium complex as a major league spring training camp, but it only took six weeks with the entire operation in Sarasota to illustrate just how inadequate -- and counterproductive -- that situation was on just about every level.

"I don't know how everybody handled that for so long, where we were," manager Dave Trembley said Saturday as the Orioles prepared to break camp. "That was awful."

And keep in mind that the situation at Ed Smith Stadium is far from perfect. The clubhouse building and the stadium are going to get a $31.2 million facelift over the next two years, which should make it one of the jewels of the Grapefruit League, but it already is so much of an improvement over the previous site that nobody has had a negative word to say about it all spring.

"This has been a breath of fresh air and a tremendous experience having spring training here in Sarasota," Trembley said. "What a first-year welcome we got. You couldn't ask for anything better. I was told today that within a few short days after we leave, the building permits have been approved and construction is going to start. It's just going to be such a great place."

Don't just take his word for it. Look at the numbers. If you exclude the exhibition games the O's have played over the years at various major league facilities, this is the first year in club history they have drawn more than 100,000 fans over the course of their home exhibition schedule. The total attendance was 102,419 and includes seven sellouts in 14 games.

There are several factors that contributed to the great debut, particularly the almost automatic sellouts when the Yankees and Red Sox came to town, but there is no question that Orioles fans have already embraced Sarasota and the locals have rushed to embrace the O's. By comparison, the Cincinnati Reds drew just 77,758 to Ed Smith with one more home game last spring before relocating to Arizona. The 39 percent increase in average per-game attendance is the largest in the major leagues this year.

"The people have been very nice," Trembley said. "It has got us through some rough spots here in spring training, with [Brian] Roberts being hurt and Koji [Uehara] being hurt, some of the things that happened in spring training that you don't foresee. Being here has certainly made up for it. It's been real nice, a great move, long overdue. Long overdue."

In fairness to Fort Lauderdale, that community welcomed the Orioles while they were wandering in the desert. The O's left their permanent setup in Miami in 1990 and knocked around the Gulf Coast without a permanent site until returning to the Atlantic Coast and settling into a year-by-year arrangement at the old Yankees complex.

It was a terrible arrangement -- trying to put a team together every year with the minor league facility more than a three-hour drive away -- but the blame for that rests almost entirely on the Orioles organization. There were plenty of opportunities to create a better situation over the past 10 years, and they struck out looking more times than they'd like to admit.

They finally were pushed out of Fort Lauderdale because the Federal Aviation Administration, which controls the land under the stadium complex, was unwilling to give its blessing to a long-term lease deal between the O's and the city of Fort Lauderdale to upgrade and expand the facility.

So, it's fair to say Sarasota wasn't the club's first choice, but the Orioles weren't Sarasota's first choice either. This was a marriage of convenience where both sides realized after the fact that they were perfect for each other.

Fans will see how perfect in a year or two. The original plan was for the whole project to be done by next spring, but it now appears that -- due to some unavoidable administrative logistics -- only the clubhouse complex may be done by then. The rest of the renovation should be complete by the spring of 2012.

That would be a small disappointment after seeing the terrific mockups of the rebuilt stadium, but the most important improvement has already been made. The whole operation is in the same geographical location and most of the players in the organization are in the same clubhouse. Only the Single-A players now train at nearby Twin Lakes Park, which has been the minor league hub for nearly two decades.

"It's been so nice to go in the back and watch the minor league guys and having those guys here," Trembley said. "Just a different atmosphere, much more positive atmosphere."

There are a lot of people who deserve credit for getting the deal done, but in their lighter moments this spring, Orioles officials have been known to raise their glasses and toast the era of big government.

"Thank God,"said one O's exec, "for the FAA."

Listen to Peter Schmuck when he hosts "Sportsline" on WBAL (1090 AM) and check out "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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