‘The crack of the bat, the sound of baseballs thumping into gloves, the infield chatter are like birdsong to the baseball starved.”
W.P. Kinsella, the author of “Shoeless Joe,” the book that later became the film “Field of Dreams,” wrote those words.
Those among us who are “baseball starved” are about to enjoy a feast.
2020 is a watershed year for baseball in our communities — the first time both Charlotte and Sarasota counties will play host to full spring training camps.
Last year, CoolToday Park opened in time for the Atlanta Braves to play just the last game of spring training.
While many teams have made Sarasota County their spring training home as far back as 1924, this is baseball’s first jaunt to South County.
Today, pitchers and catchers for both the Braves and Tampa Bay Rays are scheduled to report for the 2020 Grapefruit League season. Position players report Sunday for the Rays, Monday for the Braves.
The Braves’ first home game is against the Baltimore Orioles on Feb. 22 in West Villages. That day, the Rays will play the Boston Red Sox at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers. The Rays’ first home game is Feb. 23 against the New York Yankees at Charlotte Sports Park.
Prior to the new season, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred and several former MLB players and other dignitaries from Florida’s spring training teams will gather for a celebratory dinner at the Braves’ new facility Sunday.
“The stadium is a major economic driver for the community,” North Port assistant city manager Jason Yarborough told the Sun. “We’re excited.”
And with good reason. Officials estimate the Braves’ 30-year lease on the stadium will generate $1.7 billion for the area.
That’s not just jobs. That’s a lot of hotel stays and restaurant meals.
Spring training has been good for the entire state. More than 1.4 million fans attended games in Florida during the 2019 season, according to MLB.com. While last year’s figures aren’t available, the Grapefruit League in 2018 generated $687 million for Florida, according to the Florida Sports Foundation.
Charlotte County has reaped the benefits of spring training and minor league baseball since its stadium opened in 1987.
The 16 spring training games played in Charlotte in 2019 generated $14 million in economic impact, according to county administrator Ray Sandrock’s recent Sun column.
“That figure does not include spending by the Rays’ players and staff or money spent by county residents attending games,” he said. “More than 67% of fans were from out of town, and visitors generated about 9,900 room nights in county hotels.”
In addition to pro ball, this week is the start of the annual Snowbird Baseball Classic. The collegiate tournament runs from Feb. 14 to March 22, and games will be played at Centennial Park, 1185 O’Donnell Blvd., in Port Charlotte, and South County Regional Park, 670 Cooper St., in Punta Gorda, and Cool Today Park in West Villages with Ohio State taking on Pitt.
Last year’s series brought $13.3 million to the local economy, according to Sandrock, with spectators, players, coaches and staff accounting for 23,300 room nights.
Charlotte has known for decades how good baseball can be for a community. West Villages is about to find out.