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Baseball Strike Has Spring Training Towns in Major Slump : Impact: Small businesses that rely on tourist dollars are hard hit, especially in Florida.

February 21, 1995|From Reuters

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — The bitter strike dividing baseball's millionaire owners and players is hitting hard at a humbler group--the countless diners, shops and motels that rely on spring training tourist dollars.

In past years, major league baseball's annual warm-up season has been an economic boon to the cities in Florida and Arizona that host spring training camps. Winter tourists flocked to those states to soak up sun and watch their favorite ball players.

The impact has been particularly severe in Florida, where 20 baseball teams train, adding an estimated $300 million to $350 million to the state's economy each year. For each host community, the exhibition season brings in an annual $20 million or so--an important consideration for a place that might have few other businesses.

But as the spring training season opens this year, players and owners are locked in a bitter 7-month-old strike. The first camps opened Thursday with replacement players, most of them former big leaguers and players who never made it to the top. Their performance is, at maximum, expected be comparable to that of the best minor leaguers.

"We've signed some replacement players, but I think we're way behind," said Lou Piniella, manager of the Seattle Mariners and a resident of St. Petersburg, Fla. "We'll see what happens."

Across Florida, teams report that ticket sales for exhibition games have been running at two-thirds less than usual, and local business owners are shaking their heads over their own prospects.

During some spring training seasons, the Dugout Diner, situated four miles from the New York Mets' training camp here, has boasted of lines of hungry fans snaking out the door. "This year, I don't know," diner owner Jo Ellen Conti said. "We usually get the same people year after year. This year, I haven't seen anybody yet."

But noting with a smile that the diner's motto is "Nobody strikes out at the Dugout," Conti said, "We're looking forward to a good season."

The Mets, whose camp was scheduled to open Friday with a roster of replacement players, sold only 1,000 tickets last Monday, the first day exhibition game tickets were available. In other years, fans snapped up 3,000. Sales of season tickets were also off, team spokesman George McClelland said.

In Dunedin, on Florida's west coast, where the Toronto Blue Jays train, ticket sales were also reported down about 70%, even though the team cut prices.

"We lowered our prices from $9 to $5, and that made no difference at all," said Ken Carson, Blue Jays spokesman.

The traffic has been light in Dunedin, Port St. Lucie and Vero Beach, as it has in other spring training towns across Florida.

Vero Beach is the home of Dodgertown, the Los Angeles Dodgers' spring training complex. Its concession stand was empty but for two employees who said they had been ordered not to speak with reporters.

Visitor John Thompson, 56, described himself as a Dodger fan whose interest went back to their Brooklyn days.

The strike, he said, has demolished the few illusions he still had about the game.

"This is now a problem between the billionaires, the owners, and the millionaires, the players," he said. "It's gotten to be a game of business. I'm sad for Florida."

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