Plant City was an ideal location for the training of ballplayers. It is warm, but not wild, a Florida oasis from the traumas of tourism and the bacchanal of Spring Break.
It was a fine place for the Cincinnati Reds to focus the attention of their impressionable prospects - to refine relay throws and hone hook slides free from the seaside distractions of thong bikinis and beer-chugging contests.
It never worked as a vacation spot.
When the Reds decided to shift their spring training headquarters from Plant City to Sarasota, Fla., it was not because of superior facilities so much as prettier postcards.
Both towns are conducive to baseball boot camp, but Sarasota is also blessed with a beach. This is an important consideration as baseball clubs seek to exploit spring training's profit potential. Clearly, the Atlanta Braves did not move to Walt Disney World for its solitude, but for its synergy. Those teams that make serious money in March these days are those that have more than baseball to sell.
Plant City pit stop, no resort
To that end, Sarasota is a place that might appeal to Reds fans from several standpoints: sun, sand, sports, shopping. Plant City, by contrast, is the resort of last resort, a good place to get gasoline between Tampa and Orlando.
"I think it's a good move because Plant City itself offered nothing," said Herb Reisenfeld, who organizes Reds Rooters spring training tours for Provident Travel. "We came down years ago (to Tampa) by train, and there were actually bands that would meet us when the trains pulled in. They'd have a parade.
"In its heyday, we'd take down as many as 600 people. That's dwindled a lot in the last few years, to a little over 100. I think Sarasota will help."
Plant City is not entirely at fault. Its most recent nosecount ended at 26,081, which is a pretty sparse population to support a spring training site. It is also short on hotels, attractions and discretionary dollars.
Yet the Reds knew all of this in 1987, when they were forced to vacate Tampa because their ballpark was scheduled for demolition. Reds owner Marge Schott, beguiled by Plant City's sweet talk and strawberry shortcake, was able to ignore its shortcomings.
"I still can't believe we did it," City Manager Nettie Draughon said Tuesday. "We were really proud that we could tell the world that we were the spring training home of the Reds."
The Reds have not always reciprocated. They stationed a rookie league team in Plant City from 1988-1991, but then moved it to Princeton, W. Va. Rather than reside in Plant City during the spring, Reds shortstop Barry Larkin preferred the traffic-intensive commute from his home in Orlando. Marty Brennaman, the radio savant, chose to rent a condo on the water in Tampa.
Plant City folks won't give up
I finally abandoned the Plant City Holiday Inn a couple of years ago, after encountering torn curtains, a malfunctioning television set and two broken ice machines. Not long afterward, Holiday Inn dumped the deteriorating property.
"The perception is that Plant City doesn't have some of the amenities that the beach properties have," Nettie Draughon said. "Conversely, we have an advantage in that we're out of the metropolitan area, but close enough to the Central Florida attractions.
"We're going to still be optimistic and try to do something. We have a good facility and we intend to try to get a team. Do you know how to get one?"
The short answer is money. Though no major-league franchise has relocated its regular-season home since 1972, teams tend to be transient in spring training. They typically sign short leases for maximum leverage, and then start jockeying for a more lucrative position.
When the New York Yankees opened their showplace stadium in Tampa last year, they traded some of spring training's bucolic charm for the trappings of big business. They also raised the ante for keeping up with the Joneses.
For little places like Plant City, the price may now be out of reach.
"We wish the Reds well, of course," Nettie Draughon said. "But we wish they would be doing well over here."
REDS PACKED FOR SARASOTA June 24, 1997
REDS 7, EXPOS 6
REDS PROMOTE ROSE TO INDY
NOTEBOOK: SARASOTA EXTENDS HEARTY WELCOME
BOX SCORE, RUNS
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