Dunedin's ballpark a throwback to simpler times

By: Andrew Hendriks

Canadian Baseball Network

DUNEDIN, Fla -- March 11th, 1977; Under overcast skies, a crowd of 1,988 poured through the gates of Dunedin’s Grant Field with the intentions of being on hand to witness Toronto’s fledging MLB club take flight.

Unfortunately, the club’s opening festivities had been temporarily out on hold as rain played a factor in delaying the Blue Jays unofficial introduction to the major leagues a day earlier. But considering what the Canadian city had gone through in order to even secure a franchise in the years leading up to that point, the 24-hour wait was barely noticed.

In front of what then was a capacity crowd at the corner of Douglas and Beltrees, outfielder Sam Ewing knocked a two-run eighth inning double that handed Toronto a late lead, one that RHP Chuck Hartensteinwould convert into Blue Jays first unofficial victory three outs later.

In ‘77, the parks retrofitted facilities --although barely reaching Major League standards-- provided ample room for an expansion team’s first foray into Grapefruit League action.

At that point, the Blue Jays farm system had yet to be fully established, and with only one true affiliated club – the A-Ball Utica Blue Jays—Toronto’s need to have a lavish set up was far from necessary. But as spring training morphed into the million-dollar industry it’s become today, Dunedin’s ballpark, although serviceable, has fallen behind the pack.

In an age of miniaturized big league coliseums such as Stienbrenner Field, the Brighthouse complex in Clearwater and Ed Smith Stadium, Dunedin’s yard is a throwback to simpler times.

Although it may not be the oldest spring training site in Florida, those honors go to Lakeland’s picturesque Joker Marchant Stadium, Dunedin’s facilities are certainly the one of the most dated in the league. That said, what the ballpark lacks in a high definition video board, expanded concourses or second-deck seating, it easily makes up for in charm.

“The view is phenomenal” said Mark Allen, a resident of Tampa and university friend of former Blue Jays pitching coach Galen Cisco.  “I remember going to Dunedin one afternoon and watching Phil Esposito throw out the first pitch.  We couldn’t figure out what happened when he threw it because we never saw the ball. Turns out he tossed a hockey puck instead… Must be a Canadian thing.”

If the city of Dunedin does in fact cater to its Canadian brethren, perhaps the stadium itself is a true reflection of their dedication.

Reminiscent of an old time hockey barn, fans are seated right on top of the action, and although the parks cramped quarters make for some crafty maneuvering in and out of its isle ways, the sightlines provided are second to none.

“It’s a real shame” added Allen. “That’s one of the best ballparks in this circuit and it seems like every year they have to fight to keep the team there.”

In addition to the fact that Blue Jays baseball and the tourism it generates helps provides an estimated $50 million (U.S.) boost to the local economy, residents of Dunedin and its surrounding area have, over time, adopted the team as their own.

“Originally, I started going out there between fares to watch the hawks that made nests atop of the light standards in left field” admitted retired Clearwater taxi driver Joe Sedgwick. “When the team showed up in late February, we’d watch them as well and because of their proximity to where we lived, we eventually became fans of the club.”

Extensively renovated in 1990, and again in both ’99 and 2005, other concerns have dashed Toronto’s desire to remain in the city. Concerns such as the 15-minute commute between Florida Auto Exchange Stadium and the club’s training complex on Solon drive.

Ideally, Major League teams prefer to have their practice fields located within walking distance of their main stadiums. In Dunedin’s case, extensive expansion is out of the question as the current yard is hemmed in by an elementary school along with a small neighborhood community that encompasses the park.

Development of the practice facility has been met with reserve as it too is located in a suburb of Dunedin, and the tenants are far from keen on the idea increasing traffic in that area.

Perhaps more than any other professional sport, baseball holds it’s heritage in the highest regard, and this reason alone is why it stings to see the fate of the Blue Jays spring training home hang in the balance.

For forty years the Blue Jays have called Dunedin home to the clubs Florida operations, using the city as not only a spring training retreat, but also as a launching pad for droves of prospects as they make their way up the MiLB ladder.

As of 2015, six Blue Jays on the clubs 25-man roster had made appearances in Dunedin outside of spring training. Led by Dalton Pompey’s standout performance in 2014, three produced eye-opening numbers while stationed in the Florida State League hub.

Although the low-A Lansing Lugnuts draw a higher average attendance, Pompey remembers the fans in Dunedin being some of the most memorable.

“We didn’t get many fans (in Dunedin), but all the fans were pretty loyal” recalled Pompey prior to Sunday’stilt vs. the Rays. “I still see the same faces that I saw when I was in high-A that I do when I’m in spring training. You keep those connections and build a relationship with those people. They mean a lot to you coming up.”

Since 1978, 40 players have reached the majors after appearing in Dunedin as a Blue Jays prospect. Included in those 40 are such organizational cornerstones as Dave Stieb (’78), Carlos Delgado (’92) and Roy Halladay(’96), who, working with esteemed pitching coach Mel Queen, used the facility to completely reconstruct his mechanics as a 23 year old in 2001.

Signed in 2000, Toronto’s current lease with the city of Dunedin is set to expire in 2017, and without former team president Paul Beeston lobbying for an extension, all signs point toward relocation.

For fans, an annual pilgrimage to spring training often represents one of the most sought after retreats of the baseball season. With that in mind, it’s easy to understand how Dunedin has become a must see destination for baseball diehards from around the country.

 But unless a new deal can be struck that is deemed satisfactory for both Toronto and the sleepy Floridian hamlet, time is running out for those who wish to visit this integral slice of Blue Jays history.

March 11th marked the 40th anniversary of the Blue Jays first win at Grant Field. To celebrate the occasion, Toronto walked off Boston with a dramatic 10th inning rally.

Only three runs were scored on the afternoon. Poetically, a pair of D-Jays alumni in A.J. Jimenez and Jon Berti plated both Toronto tallies.

The win represented the Blue Jays 300th spring training victory at home in Dunedin.