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Southwest Floridians worry as spring training is postponed until at least March 5

DEMOCRACY WATCH: MLBLockout
Samantha Roesler
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The Lee County Sports Complex in the Fort Myers area hosts the Minnesota Twins for spring training. The Twins are one of two MLB teams that hold spring training in Lee County, but with the lockout, it's uncertain whether the games will occur.

This story has been updated Friday, Feb. 18
Baseball fans and Southwest Florida businesses are more worried than ever about the possible loss of spring training this year. Major League Baseball officially has postponed any spring training games until March 5 at the earliest.

The statement from MLB on Friday, February 18, said that all games are postponed through March 4. That covers the first week of games that had been scheduled. MLB said that fans who've bought tickets to the lost games will get full refunds.

The Associated Press reported that on Monday, February 21, MLB and the players association are supposed to meet again in efforts to reach a new collective bargaining agreement.

The players and owners of the MLB teams are trying to work out a new collective bargaining agreement, as their 2016 contracts ended in early December. Owners put a lockout into effect. That means players are not able to practice in facilities as all baseball activities are halted. Until the Major League Baseball Players Association and the owners work out a new agreement, players are not able to prepare for spring training, and spring training games will not occur.

Lee County hosts two teams for spring training: the Boston Red Sox at JetBlue Park and the Minnesota Twins at Lee County Sports Complex. Charlotte County hosts the Tampa Bay Rays for spring training.

In 2019, Lee County released a study based on the economic impacts of the 2018 spring training season. The study showed that just under half of the fans at games visit Lee County only during spring training. Half of the people who participated in the study said that spring training was their primary reason for coming to the Fort Myers area.

The study showed that travelers who attended spring training games spent nearly $69 million cumulatively in the area while visiting, including in-park sales.

It’s without question that this time of year holds peak sales for many hotels and restaurants.

Michael DeNunzio is a co-owner of Fine Folk Pizza in Lee County, directly west of JetBlue Park. The locally-owned restaurant sees great revenue spikes during spring training games.

“The loss of spring training would affect us for sure,” DeNunzio said. “Typically, on game days, we see about 30 percent of our revenue hike because of the JetBlue baseball traffic. So, definitely it’s unfortunate.”

Not only would the MLB Lockout have negative impacts on businesses, but fans could potentially miss something they look forward to all year.

“It would be a disappointing flashback to two years ago when (spring training) abruptly ended, and then last year they had limited seating with social distancing,” Roy Kaplan, a full-time Florida resident and lifelong Red Sox fan, said.

Kaplan watches almost all the spring training games as a season ticket holder.

“Friends that are fellow fans said it’s a tug of war between the greedy owners and the equally greedy players,” Kaplan said. “They’re getting paid handsomely, some feeling appropriately too much, to play a game. So, a lot of these emotions start to boil up.”

However Kaplan said that there’s an alternate side to the labor dispute that people often overlook.

“Another way to look at it is every player’s career could end at any time with an injury, even in spring training,” Kaplan said. “Their future is not as secure.”

The uncertain future of spring training can bring a fleet of worry to fans with out-of-state friends and relatives who plan to visit the area to watch pre-season games. Each year Chuck Myron will meet up with his friends from Philadelphia in Clearwater to watch Phillies spring training. However due to life changes and the pandemic, Myron and friends haven’t attended games together since 2018. Now they’re ready to start watching their favorite team again in the warm sunshine of Florida.

“This is the worst nightmare scenario, we’ve been waiting for this for four years now,” Myron said. “We really want to (go to the games) and we’re just in limbo. We can’t plan because we don’t know if there will be a spring training, when it will be, or where. So this is a disaster.”

Some fans like Jim Doepke make attending spring training and regular season games into a hobby. Doepke plays the national anthem on the trumpet at baseball events and has played at every MLB stadium in America at least once.

“It’s nice to see people that come from other parts of the country to support their team,” Doepke said. He is scheduled to play at four spring training games in Lee County at the end of March. “They’ll get off the plane and rather than go to their hotel they’ll come to the stadium and catch a game first. It’s just a lot of excitement.”

Doepke worries not only about his anthem performances, but also about local businesses that rely on spring training revenue to stay afloat through the slow season of summer.

“I think about this community that relies so heavily on spring training dollars,” Doepke said. “Those funds will come in to help keep this area vibrant, and I think it would be a real loss.”

“The problem is that there's contempt amongst both sides and that's what's holding this up,” Phillies fan Chuck Myron said. “Ultimately, for baseball to succeed as a sport, you need to have both sides working together to make it a better game. At this point, that's not going on.”