When it comes to spring training as we know it, the Tampa Bay area is both the mecca and genesis. Starting with the Chicago Cubs taking up spring residence in Tampa in 1913 and the St. Louis Browns following the next year in St. Petersburg, baseball has formed a symbiotic relationship with the Bay Area, one that is proven today with the existence of three active stadiums (McKechnie Field, Al Lang Stadium, and Joker Marchant Stadium) over 40 years old, four teams with a 30+ year-long relationship with their host city (Phillies and Clearwater, Tigers and Lakeland, Pirates and Bradenton, and — the subject of this review — Blue Jays and Dunedin), and seven active ballparks in March, all within a 50-mile radius of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. So, to say Tampa Bay is the place to see spring action is understating it.
That might be why that the newly-born Toronto Blue Jays chose their first — and, as it turns out, only to-date — spring home to be in the small, seaside city named after the capital of Scotland, Dunedin. ("But wait! I thought the capital of Scotland was Edinburgh!" It is; "dun-EE-din" is the Gaelic pronunciation of the city, just spelled way differently than the Americans, and the English that transliterated, who named this town have spelled it.) Having a community ballpark, Grant Field, and wanting to fill it with more than community games, Dunedin were able to convince the Blue Jays to play there from their birth in 1977 to 1989. However, the Jays outgrew the small 3,417-seater, so instead of possibly losing the team, the city razed the grandstand, expanded it, and opened Dunedin Stadium by the next spring. Also, in doing that expansion, the city was able to convince the team to bring regular minor-league games into the park, and thus the Dunedin Blue Jays were born. Small renovations aside, it has pretty much stayed the same since then, and boy, has it aged gracefully.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
There really are a TON of places where you can get food of all kinds. You start with the main concession stands near the entrance, and along the first- and third-base sides. They're the ones built into the structure and all serve the traditional hot dogs, nachos, and the like, but all of them serve some of the best pizza I've ever had at a sporting event. It comes from a local chain called Jet's Pizza, and while it's $5 a slice, it seriously is worth every penny. There are also carts all along the opposite side of the concourse serving beer (more on that below), ice cream, lemonade, and the like. The extra-special food thing, though is a tented area near the main team store called the "Canadian Grill". The choices in there range from pulled pork to barbeque chicken breasts, along with sausages and all the fixings. There are a ton of picnic tables under the tent, too, to just sit and eat your meal without having to worry about burning in the hot Florida sun.
When people ask about my favorite beer choices, I tell them I'm a NAFTA drinker: Mexican (Dos Equis), American (Yuengling & Shiner), and Canadian (LaBatt's Blue). This, so far, has been the only sporting event in the South I've been able to find the last on that above list - being a team from Canada has something to do with it, I'm sure - so, since most stadiums serve the same bland choices, it's refreshing to have a long-time favorite of mine readily available.
While I thought the prices of food were a bit steep when I was here for minor league last year, they actually fit just-right in with spring training. Plus, most kiosks and stalls take credit cards now (Visa and MasterCard only), so that's a big thumbs-up, too! Overall, plan on eating here; you won't be disappointed.
Though a decade removed from its last small renovation, and 22 years (as of 2012) into this latest incarnation of the stadium, it still has a lot of charm and life about it. Sure, it doesn't have a flashy video scoreboard like Bright House Field or Steinbrenner Field do, but what they have works for the type of park it is: an intimate, neighborhood ballpark where everyone feels like your longtime friend. I said in my previous review that it's a "back-to-basics" ballpark, and that's precisely what I love about it.
Downtown Dunedin's Main Street, which houses the vast majority of entertainment and food options, is a quick drive north up Douglas Ave, and even walkable if you park downtown and walk back later. The park itself is located in a residential neighborhood (most of which, during spring training, will open their driveways and front yards to parking - for a price), next to the city library, and a few small establishments.
If that's not your thing, you're less than a ten-minute drive from the best beach in America - as voted on by Dr. Beach in 2008 - Caladesi Island State Park on Causeway Boulevard in Dunedin. And if you're looking for a more-secluded beach, head about 20 minutes north to Tarpon Springs and Fred Howard Beach. And while you're there, check out the amazing Greek cuisine at the Sponge Docks.
Let's be honest: any amount of people coming from all reaches of Canada would make this a 5 because of their dedication and loyalty to their team. True story: I sat behind a woman from Dawson Creek, BC - 2,663 miles, as the crow flies, from Dunedin - and the family of 5 next to us was from Grande Prairie, AB - 2,594 miles. The straight-through from Toronto of 1,100 miles seems like a breeze compared to those. The warm Florida sun of 82˚F/28˚C that day when Toronto was 43/6, Dawson Creek was 39/4, and Grande Prairie was a whopping 37/3 was surely a draw, too.
But they earned that 5 with both quantity and quality. There were a slew of Blue Jays fans, and while it's not fair to categorize them all as from the Great White North, I'd venture a guess and say that 80% of the crowd supported the Jays, and probably 60%-70% of them were from one of the Provinces. And each one knew their stuff; they could tell you, without looking at the cheat sheet, which player was what number - even the obscure, doubtful to make the final roster, 40-man player that'll probably end up in Las Vegas. For that, I tip my hat to them.
This category was the biggest change from when I reviewed the "D-Jays". When I went there, seeing as the crowd was quite sparse, I touted how it was easy to get to, easy to park, easy to maneuver...everything was just "easy". Now that the crowds exceed the 200-300 I was used to during the summer, and are more than 20x that size, "chaotic" would be a more operable word. Now, this is through no fault of the team nor the city; this is just what happens when you have a ballpark in a heavily-residential neighborhood, and no more room to expand.
Parking, believe it or not, is easy to find, but you will pay. You can park (for a fee) in most of the neighbor's driveways - just make sure there's a sign there saying you can before doing so or they will tow you. What I personally do is park downtown and make the walk. I like the parking lot on the corner of Highland Ave and Virginia St, the Municipal Lot. It's free, unlimited parking, and most people usually don't know about it. It's about a half-mile walk south on Highland to the ballpark, but it's through a beautiful neighborhood, so it's well worth it.
Once inside, the concourse, with all the extra things to buy and eat, becomes congested from the queues, so what once was wide and breezy, becomes, well...chaotic. And while there only two sets of bathrooms near home plate in the concourse, they are clean and large, so small consolation there, but make sure you start walking there before you "really" have to go, or you may not make it.
In all honesty, this is one of the best bangs for your buck I've experienced in the Grapefruit League yet. The tickets are reasonably-priced from $15-$28, and with food being as reasonable as it is - and free parking, if you know where to look - I'd say short of expecting to get in free, it's a great value.
Some of the extras include the really cool banners hanging from the grandstand over the concourse of the current stars on the team, the fact this is a bona-fide neighborhood park, its close proximity to downtown and the world-famous beaches at Caladesi Island and Honeymoon Island, and the inclusion of the metric equivalents in the wall foot distances.
But I think the thing that struck me the most was how nice and caring the staff was. They all went out of their way to say "Hello!", crack a joke, or just ask how your time is going. Not a single one looked pained to be there, or even just like they were having a bad day. It might be because I went to Opening Day and everyone was excited to be back, but I think if I went in mid-March, they'd be the exact same way.
Throughout the last 30+ years of the Blue Jays/Dunedin marriage, they really have become synonymous with one another, and why shouldn't they? The Jays were born here, and in an area that's filled with parochial bickering and in-fighting over which city is better, Dunedin has something that is uniquely their own and no one else can lay claim to it. The Blue Jays are as much a civic symbol of Dunedin as they are Toronto, and even Canada as a whole.
Dunedin has made sure the Blue Jays stay as long as they are a franchise, and I don't see anything in the future to come along and change that. Yes, Florida Auto Exchange Stadium is far from the newest and shiniest, but with its down-home charm, laid-back atmosphere, and all-around quality, I think the Jays organization likes it precisely for that reason, and that's why it's definitely one of the best parks in the Grapefruit League. It's time to start brushing up on how to say "dun-EE-din" and go down for a very-worthwhile visit.
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937 Douglas Ave
Dunedin, FL 34698
1 Causeway Blvd
Dunedin, FL 34698
1700 Sunset Dr
Tarpon Springs, FL 34689
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