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Alternative may be springing up in Sarasota

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / May 1, 2008

When you compare the new and elaborate spring training facilities in Arizona with some of the older facilities such as the Red Sox' in Fort Myers, Fla., you can understand why the Sox are exploring the idea of moving their spring training home to Sarasota.

City of Palms Park opened in 1992, and at the time it was considered a palace compared with what they left behind in Winter Haven, a facility way ahead of its time. But in 16 years things have changed. The Sox' popularity is at an all-time high and ticket demand is through the roof at the 8,000-seat park.

Sox chief operating officer Mike Dee doesn't want to make too much of his discussions just yet, but he confirmed yesterday, after the story broke on ballparkdigest.com, that he met with Sarasota officials last Friday after they called the team earlier in the month to ask about their interest once they learned the Reds were accepting a deal to relocate to Goodyear, Ariz.

There were all sorts of ideas floating around last night. There was even talk of making a new spring home a mini replica of Fenway Park.

The Sox' lease at City of Palms Park runs through 2019, but there is an out clause that allows them to leave after the 2009 exhibition season if Fort Myers was unable to accommodate the team's growing needs. They might be nearing that fork in the road.

Sarasota's proposal for the Reds would have included a $41 million renovation of the Ed Smith Complex. The Sox seem to be looking for a new facility, and Dee said he has talked with Lee County officials about building a new facility in Fort Myers. There is a 50-acre parcel in Sarasota that could be used to build an elaborate complex, complete with a hotel, shops, restaurants, a dorm for minor league players, and other amenities.

"The one thing we don't want to do is lose the intimacy of spring training," said Dee. "We need an increase from the 8,000 seats we have in Fort Myers right now because we can't accommodate the demand for tickets. But we're not going to go to a 20,000-seat facility or anything that large."

Dee said those in the Sox organization have nothing negative to say about the manner in which they've been treated in Fort Myers. Dee said the only reason to consider moving is because "what worked for the Red Sox in 1992 doesn't necessarily work for the Red Sox in 2008."

The biggest downfall to moving is that so many New Englanders and team personnel have bought residences in the Fort Myers area.

Another issue with training in Fort Myers is the necessary travel to meet the obligations of the Sox' Grapefruit League schedule. Sarasota is approximately 80 miles north of Fort Myers, along the Gulf of Mexico.

For many teams, their minor league complex has become their organizational hub. The Yankees, for instance, run their minor league and scouting departments from Tampa. Many teams with spring training facilities in Arizona have moved their operations there.

Sarasota appears to have taken an aggressive approach to luring the Sox, and Dee felt "it was appropriate at this time to pursue the matter."

Sarasota's advances could spur Lee County to get serious about building an expanded facility for the Sox. Dee indicated there are no options besides Sarasota and Lee County on the table.

Dee is aware that the city of Sarasota is pursuing other teams (the Orioles and Brewers), but he feels Sarasota would choose Red Sox Nation and its bountiful economic benefits.

There are also many transplanted Bostonians living in Sarasota, where the Sox trained from 1933-42 and from 1946-58. Former general manager Lou Gorman, now a senior adviser with the team, lives in Sarasota.

I remember when Sox fans who owned homes in Winter Haven were heartbroken over the move to Fort Myers. Now it's Fort Myers residents who fear the team's relocation. But Dee warns it is way too early for people to assume the Sox are moving.

The truth is Fort Myers and City of Palms Park have become inadequate for a team that has exponentially grown in size and popularity since arriving in 1992. The fan base has a ferocious appetite for all things Red Sox, and the team needs more room to provide it.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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