Sarasota Red Sox? The story behind the story

Concerted effort to lure team to new spring training camp

Hank McFarland

The first murmurings regarding an interest by the Boston Red Sox in moving their Florida spring training operations from Fort Myers to Sarasota were heard around Sarasota in early February.




Being a winter resident of that charming city and also an ardent Red Sox fan, my interest was piqued. Not only would it be a fabulous opportunity for me to check out the new additions to the team every spring, having the Red Sox nearby would definitely increase the attractiveness of Sarasota as a tourist destination, particularly for winter-weary New England fans.

By May it was obvious that this was more than a rumor begun by some rabid Massachusetts transplant. The Sarasota Herald Tribune was beginning to run stories about a possible Red Sox move, a citizens committee to encourage such a move was formed, and Red Sox officials were talking up the excellent attributes of the Sarasota area.

On May first, a headline in the Sarasota paper read: “Red Sox look toward Sarasota.”  The accompanying article stated that Red Sox officials had made several secret visits to Sarasota and that “confidential” talks had been underway between Sarasota County and City officials and Red Sox personnel. The article quoted Mike Dee, Red Sox chief operating officer, as saying that Sarasota “is a spectacular city with great amenities.”

According to the same article, the Red Sox are under contract to train at their Fort Myers facility until 2019, but with a clause that allows them to buy out the lease in 2011. According to Dee, the Red Sox are like a family with a nice three-bedroom house that now has nine kids. They need more room, and City of Palms Park in Fort Myers is land bound. In addition, it is a two-mile ride from the park where exhibition games are played and the remainder of their spring training facility where the practice fields and other amenities are located.

Until this year Sarasota had hosted the Cincinnati Reds’ spring training at Ed Smith Stadium, a slightly aging facility on 12th Street in Sarasota which seats 7500 customers. The Reds had demanded improvements to the park which would have cost around $40 million to complete. Sarasota declined, and the Reds will be moving to Goodyear, Arizona, in 2010.


Green Monster moving to Sarasota   (Judy Palm photo)


Now, Sarasota has a chance to snare what they call the “crown jewel” of baseball, the Boston Red Sox, and to complete the transaction Sarasota will need to spend something on the order of $70 million to either completely renovate Ed Smith Stadium or build a new facility. The Red Sox will require a 10,000-seat stadium, practice fields adjacent to the property, and other amenities commensurate with a baseball team in training.

On May 3, the headlines in the paper read: “Red Sox are golden opportunity” and the following editorial estimated that the $40 million per year the Reds had brought to the local economy could be doubled if the Red Sox decided to relocate there.

May 6 brought an editorial in the local paper. “While the Cincinnati Reds are not exactly chopped liver, the Red Sox are a dream team.” wrote the editor. “The differences between these two teams goes far beyond the letters “O” and the “X”. The Red Sox have a large, even global following that fills stadiums. Ours, we hope.”

Only two weeks later, Theo Epstein and other Red Sox officials came to Sarasota to check out Ed Smith Stadium. The occasion was the FHSAA baseball finals. This was merely the first visit by Epstein to Sarasota. This visit was followed up by another on September 17 when the general manager was in Tampa for the important Rays–Red Sox series.

Beginning in May, supporters of the idea of bringing Red Sox spring training to Sarasota formed a citizen’s group. The organization was founded by a transplanted Massachusetts resident, Elsie Souza, until three years ago a resident of New Bedford. She had moved to Sarasota when her husband was chosen to head the Sarasota office of Habitat for Humanity. When rumors surfaced of Red Sox interest in moving to Sarasota, Elsie, at the urging of one of the Sarasota County commissioners, seized the opportunity. Using the experience she had garnered working political campaigns for Congressman Barney Frank and her lifetime enjoyment of Red Sox baseball, she set to work. Working with no money she managed to procure donations and technical help to set up a web site, purchase Red Sox jerseys and hats and become a political force. She and her volunteers actively sent out press releases, manned a booth at the local farmer’s market where they gathered signatures of those in favor of bringing the Red Sox to town, and wore their Red Sox hats and the jersey’s of their favorite Red Sox players. They solicited signatures of those in favor of the Red Sox move, and as of September 17 the group was halfway to its goal of having 10,000 signatures of support.

During the ensuing couple of months work began in earnest to develop a suitable plan. Three sites for a possible stadium were reviewed. An architect was hired to produce some tentative drawings for Red Sox officials to check out. Financing options were discussed.


On July 10, Red Sox officials chose a plan for a 9999-seat stadium, modeled after the team’s famous Fenway Park facility, complete with 500 suite seats, lawn seating, and a towering “green monster” wall in left field. Included in the plans were six practice fields and a separate area for pitching and batting practice.



In late August Sarasota County commissioners voted to purchase land near Payne Park, a baseball stadium which predates Ed Smith Stadium, for the potential baseball complex. It was another step along the road bringing the Red Sox to Sarasota.

As of this writing, the most recent development in the Red Sox saga has been the hosting of several Sarasota city and county officials, along with members of the citizen group Citizens For Sox at the September 17 Rays-Red Sox game at Tropicana Field in St Petersburg. Many Red Sox executives were present, and no doubt the thrills of the game was dwarfed by the excitement of the ongoing negotiations and the hope of a Red Sox presence in beautiful Sarasota. As of today, there is no deal to report. Stay tuned for further developments.

The e-mail below was received by the writer on 9/19/08.

Good Afternoon,

Mike Dee and Larry Lucchino wanted me to express to all of you the thanks of the Boston Red Sox for our efforts here in Sarasota. They were everything that you expect..............a class act..............representing the best the sports world has to offer. The Red Sox definitely want to relocate their spring training
facilities to Sarasota and our mission is to bring them here.

Please take me seriously when I ask you to write Tribune -Letters to the Editor, (click link below)
Letters

Email the commissioners (Commissioner emails are listed on citizensforsox.com)
Email

Speak to your families, friends and neighbors. I can convey the wishes of five thousand petitioners but the commissioners need to hear from individual constituents. In a shaken economy our elected officials will have to be bold and brave. No, the commissioners have made it very clear that no ad valorem taxes will be used........but there still has to be money on the table.

We are in a wait and see period where there will be no news until the ommissioners are given the information of a final decision worked out by the city and county administrators and their staffs. Then there will have to be a vote by these same commissioners.

Let me give you an analogy.............It is Thanksgiving Day with its rituals and traditions.....the guests have arrived and are seated at the table. The turkey is presented in all its glory and placed as the centerpiece. Everyone makes conversation and the side dishes are passed. The turkey is carved and passed. This is what is going on right now......the players are in the room, the conversation has begun, now it is time for the main course, the actual negotiations. Everyone is looking to see who brought what to the table. The Dance has begun. We have to be vigilant in the next weeks...........................but remember this...............THE COUNTY AND CITY ARE WORKING AS A TEAM................THIS IS THE STORY.....SHARE IT WITH EVERYONE.

Have a great day. Keep watching for our next event.

September 26: Formal negotiations between the Red Sox and the city and county of Sarasota began today.


Sarasota County and the City of Sarasota established a web site on October 3 so that those interested may keep up on the negotiations between them and the Red Sox. It is at: www.scgov.net/Ballpark/

Go to Letters in November,2008




October, 2008



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