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Sour Grapefruit League: Florida Fears Losses With Replacement Players

February 10, 1995

DUNEDIN, Fla. (AP) _ Tamara Helms craned her neck and slowly scanned the nearly empty dining room of her restaurant a half block from Dunedin Stadium, the winter home of the Toronto Blue Jays.

Spring training begins in less than a week, and the prospect that camps will open without major league stars has Helms and others in this small community that’s become a haven for Canadian tourists fearing the worst.

``The whole thing has just gotten out of hand. Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would come down to something like this,″ Helms said. ``People can’t figure out what’s going on and are wondering if business will ever be the same.″

Helms has owned Iris’ family restaurant for the past 10 years and has watched spring training transform this little town of 34,427 into one of the most popular destinations for baseball fans in March.

Blue Jays advance ticket sales are down 66 percent, though, and most of the regular faces Helms is accustomed to greeting in early February aren’t around this year.

That has her and city officials, who face a debt payment on the stadium they rebuilt for the team six years ago, concerned about the financial impact of opening camps with replacement players.

Since more than 80 percent of the people who filled the 6,200-seat stadium for every Blue Jays home exhibition game last year were Canadians, Helms said it’s not realistic to expect local residents to make up the difference.

``By this time they’ve usually sold 50,000 tickets by mail order. Two weeks ago, they’d sold 15,000,″ Helms said. ``I’m already feeling the pinch. People are usually here by now, spending money and waiting for the players.

``The people who buy season tickets and are here every year by now? They’re not here. Believe me, this is a fun place to be at this time of the year. But look at it now. I don’t think the owners and players realize that the people hurt most by this, they don’t even know. It’s the small guy and small businesses like this that are counting on them.″

Twenty of the 28 major leagues teams winter in Florida where spring training has been a staple of the economy for nearly a century. Baseball is only of the attractions that bring visitors to the state at this time of year, though, and officials hope the strike will have a minimal impact on tourism overall.

``I’m sure there will be some drop off,″ said Gary Usina, of the Florida Sports Foundation in Tallahassee. ``A lot depends on what happens when the camps open. You’ve got owners like Peter Angelos saying he won’t use replacement players. Will he? And what will the other owners do if he doesn’t?″

Usina’s office planned this year to update a 1991 study that tabbed the economic impact of spring training at just over $300 million. That was before the Florida Marlins were started and the Cleveland Indians moved their winter base to the state from Arizona two years ago.

The sports foundation normally distributes more than 200,000 free copies of a spring training guide for fans. The handy publication isn’t available this year, though, because advertisers were unwilling to gamble that baseball would resolve the strike in time to hold normal camps.

``It’s such a unique situation that no one really knows what to expect or what to do,″ Usina said. ``Some people will come only if the stars are here. Others are curious enough that they’ll come to see what it’s like with the replacements.″

Regardless, advance ticket sales have been slow and hotels accustomed to full houses during the month-long Grapefruit League season are bracing for what is almost certain to be an unusual, if not disappointing, spring.

Communities like Vero Beach, where the Los Angeles Dodgers train, and Dunedin, which officials say attracts more out-of-state visitors than any other spring training base, stand to lose more than cities like Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Lakeland, where baseball is less vital to the local economy.

Helms estimates she’ll lose about $10,000 if business doesn’t pick up. She normally sets up extra tables outside her restaurant to accommodate the large crowds. The city requires her to rent portable restrooms when she does that, but has relaxed the requirement this year.

``They’re going to let me go three games and see if there’s a need,″ she said. ``The city is trying to work with everybody. We’re all in this together. They’ve got a big payment to make on the stadium and they understand our needs, too.″

Ironically, the situation that’s currently hurting Helms could wind up being her salvation.

She clutched a copy of a newspaper article that raised the prospect that the Blue Jays, forbidden by Canadian law to play games with replacement players in Toronto, will play regular-season home games in Dunedin if the strike is not resolved.

``This is the best news I’ve gotten in a long time. When someone brought up the possibility the first time, I didn’t think there was any way. I thought they’d find a bigger stadium in a bigger city. This is wonderful. If things are slow, maybe we can make it up by holding on to the Blue Jays for a little longer.″

Stadium manager Sara Kessinger is less optimistic about regular-season games in Dunedin salvaging the spring economically. She said Canadian tourists typically return home in April.

``You couldn’t rely on tourists to fill the stadium for you then,″ Kessinger said. ``That means the residents in this area are going to have to do it. And right now, you can’t be sure that will happen.″

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