The Atlanta Braves aren’t making a trip to the postseason this year, but could they instead be planning a trip to Pasco County in a few years? Like for spring training?
Gary Sheffield, the retired Major League Baseball star who hit 64 home runs when he played two seasons for the Braves more than a decade ago, believes his old team will come. And if not them, maybe the Houston Astros or Toronto Blue Jays — both which have expressed interest in looking for new spring training homes — instead.
Regardless, the former outfielder says the proposed $70 million baseball complex planned on 100 acres in the Wiregrass Ranch area will be so attractive, it would be impossible for any Major League team to turn it down.
“They don’t want to be second to Disney,” Sheffield told a group of business leaders recently at a Greater Wesley Chapel Chamber of Commerce economic development meeting. “The problem they are having is that the fans coming to the games there are not Braves fans. They are there for Disney, and that is a problem for them.”
The Braves have played spring training at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex near Disney World in Orlando since 1998, but have been unofficially considering other options in recent months since their lease there is set to expire in 2017.
Wesley Chapel could be perfect for the team, Sheffield says, since many might consider the Interstate 75 trip between there and Atlanta a straight shot. It also makes sense as a second home for the team without making it inconvenient for its fan base.
“That is an easy commute for them,” Sheffield said. “All those fans could come straight here, plus go to other places like Disney and Clearwater Beach, since they would be close by. That is a possibility that is pretty much there for the taking.”
The sports complex was proposed by James Talton, owner of Blue Marble Strategic, and would supply 20 baseball and multipurpose athletic fields, as well as dormitories for players and other amenities. It’s a way to tap into the lucrative youth baseball market, he said.
Talton is raising $54 million in private funding, and looking for $11 million from Pasco County tourist tax money, to make such a project a reality.
Even without a major stadium component, Talton feels his sports complex could play a role in creating 8,000 jobs in the county, and produce $318 million in annual economic impact, as well as a direct revenue stream of $9 million each year to the county government. But if the project could attract a Major League team, there’s no telling how big of an impact that would have in the Wesley Chapel area, Talton said.
Creating a separate field for spring training would not be anywhere near the headache the Tampa Bay Rays are experiencing with its efforts to get out of Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. In fact, spring training fields are typically much smaller than regular season venues, Talton said, where average attendance usually holds around 6,700.
“We would want to put in up to 12,000 seats, but that could be a little ambitious,” he said. “A lot of what we hear from the league is that they want to have no more than 8,000 seats, because they want to make sure they are filled.”
Yet, just from his own youth baseball operations, Talton believes he can fill 3,000 of those seats with his players and families that might be using the rest of the facility during spring training time. He wants to be open for business by January 2017, which would be just ahead of when the Braves’ lease with Disney expires.
But are the Braves even looking to stay in this part of the state? Braves president John Schuerholz told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in March that staying in Central Florida could be tough.
Many teams that used to participate in spring training are looking for other parts of the state, especially south, and it could be tough for Atlanta to travel around if its only nearby opponent is the Detroit Tigers in Lakeland.
The Braves want to stay in Florida, however, and have waved off any suggestions the team could move to the other popular spring training state of Arizona. But if the Astros move out of Kissimmee, and the Washington Nationals leave their home in Viera, that could leave the Atlanta team rather isolated in Lake Buena Vista.
Yet moving to Wesley Chapel could be a good move in that respect. The Tigers would still be available in Lakeland, joining five other teams in quick driving distance — the New York Yankees in Tampa, the Blue Jays in Dunedin, the Philadelphia Phillies in Clearwater, the Pittsburgh Pirates in Bradenton, and the Baltimore Orioles in Sarasota.
The Braves also would be a lot closer to the Tampa Bay Rays, who play its spring training games in Port Charlotte.
A request to the Braves for comment is still pending.
Sheffield, who was born and raised in Tampa, says he has been spending a lot of time in Pasco County, especially since his kids are members of the Pasco Predators youth athletic teams. Once tourists start discovering the area, they won’t be able to stay away.
“There is something about Tampa and Pasco County,” he said. “People can’t leave. They can’t leave the water, or the beautiful places here. It’s totally community-driven.”