A press conference was held ths week in Orlando announcing that plans are indeed underway to move the New York Yankees Florida State League franchise to the Orlando area beginning with the 2013 season.
According to the Tampa Tribune:
"Orange County government, New York Yankees representatives and businessman Armando Gutierrez confirmed they are considering a partnership that could move the team to Orlando."
I'm not sure why it's necessary to hold a press conference to confirm that you're considering something that could result in some action taking place, but while this sounds like the end of minor league baseball in Hillsborough County (again), there are actually more questions than answers at this point...
Why does anything happen in sports? ... Money.
Armando Gutierrez, a former candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives is an Orlando businessman and appears to be the point person for this investment group. He, along with Orange County mayor Rich Crotty, believes the team could become another tourist destination, specifically one that fills the sports void left in the summer when the NBA's Orlando Magic finishes their season. Gutierrez gushed,
"You have a chance to see an 18- or 19-year-old Derek Jeter before he becomes a Hall of Famer."
The problem there is - for whatever reasons - the resurgence in popularity that swept minor league baseball in the late '80s and through the '90s never took root in Florida. While teams in the Carolinas, the midwest and California were enjoying sellout crowds and selling merchandise all over the world after re-branding themselves with quirky, local-centric nicknames and funky logos, teams playing in Florida kept plodding along as always, fortunate to occassionally draw crowds over 2,000. Fans in Florida have either never grasped or just didn't care that they had the opportunity to see future hall of famers playing in their backyards.
The most recent high-profile attempt to cash in on the untapped minor league baseball boom in Florida was when the Rays moved their AA Southern League team in Orlando to Disney's Cracker Jack (now Champion) Stadium, part of the Wide World of Sports complex, in 2000. Despite all the bells and whistles you'd expect from the mighty Disney marketing machine, the team only drew between 1,000 and 2,000 a game, last in the Southern League. The team moved after four seasons to Montgomery, Alabama, where they have averaged over 4,000 a game since.
WHERE WILL THEY PLAY?
Tinker Field, longtime spring training home of the Minnesota Twins has not had a professional tenant since 1999. It's located next to the Citrus Bowl, a football stadium, in a rough neighborhood in downtown Orlando. The Houston Astros play their spring training games at Osceola County Stadium but haven't had a full season minor league team play there since the 2000 season. And of course, there's the aforementioned Champion Stadium at Disney World, spring home of the Atlanta Braves but without a full-season tenant since the Rays moved out to become the Montgomery Biscuits after the 2003 season. The Yankees will apparently use none of these facilities.
Instead, Gutierrez is talking about building a new stadium that he says will not be financed by taxpayers, other than the 12-15 acres of land near Sea World that the county might give him, of course. Orlando needs six more $9.95 steak buffet restaurants before it needs one more 5,000-7,500 seat baseball stadium.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO STEINBRENNER FIELD?
Nothing, really. The Yankees have 15 years remaining on their lease, which does not require them to provide a minor league team to play there after spring training. We may see more youth and college tournaments held there as the Tampa Bay Sports Commission will have greater flexibility to pursue amateur baseball events.
FC Tampa Bay (the new Rowdies) of the United States Soccer Federation Division 2 Pro League seem to be happy with playing their home games there, certainly happier than they would be across the street at Raymond James Stadium, where the Buccaneers' lease makes it virtually impossible for anyone whose last name doesn't start with a G and end with a LAZER to make any money. If they're still around in the future, they'll probably stay at Steinbrenner Field. But the likelihood of another minor league baseball team playing there during the summer? Extremely slim at best.
WHAT ABOUT ... ?
And no, there's absolutely no possibility for the Rays to move there. By the time you increase the seating capacity by nearly four times and slapped some kind of roof, retractable or not, over the top of it, you've basically built a new stadium. And if you're doing that, you're not going to want Steinbrenner's name on it. The concept is too ridiculous to even contemplate.
IS THIS AN APPROPRIATE THING FOR THE YANKEES TO DO?
The ballpark, originally named Legends Field, was re-named in honor of the Yankees principal owner, George M.Steinbrenner, on March 27, 2008. Mr. Steinbrenner passed away just two years later on July 13, 2010.
Also, major renovations were recently completed on the facility, paid for by $7.5 million in bonds issued by Hillsborough County. All of which might make the timing of this announcement seem ... insensitive. But as mentioned before, the Yankees are compliant with the terms of their lease. They're exercising an option to which they're legally entitled.
In the late '80s, the Tampa Sports Authority allowed the baseball facilities used by the Cincinnati Reds to fall into such a state of disrepair that it drove the Reds out of town and the minor league Tampa Tarpons out of business. In 1989, Al Lopez Field, the ballpark that had been built to honor the Tampa native and first person from Tampa to be enshrined in baseball's hall of fame, was razed, 16 years before Lopez died. That was inappropriate.
This is just business.