Minor League Baseball will be returning to a familiar Florida ballpark this year. With Dunedin Stadium undergoing renovations, the Dunedin Blue Jays (High A; Florida State League) will play the bulk of their home schedule at Clearwater’s Jack Russell Memorial Stadium—the former spring training home of the Philadelphia Phillies.
Originally built in 1955, Jack Russell Stadium was the spring-training home of the Phillies through 2003 and hosted regular season action for the former Clearwater Phillies (High A; Florida State League), now known as the Threshers. In the years following the departure of both spring-training operations and regular-season games to a new ballpark in Clearwater, Jack Russell Stadium was essentially downsized. The main grandstand was torn down, but the playing field and some surrounding structures remained, allowing for it to live on as a high school and college baseball facility.
It will return to the professional ranks to fill a major void for the Blue Jays, who will be decamped from Dunedin Stadium in 2019 as the ballpark undergoes a major renovation beginning after the end of spring training. An agreement between the Blue Jays and the City of Clearwater was finalized late last month, allowing for the team to play 62 of its 70 home games at Jack Russell Stadium.
For the Blue Jays, there will be a few advantages to this arrangement. Along with preventing a situation in which all of its home games were played on the road—something that team and Florida State League officials wanted to avoid—it ensures the club will remain close to its home base, while moving into a well-maintained facility.
“I think the biggest thing from our perspective was proximity,” said Dunedin Blue Jays general manager Mike Liberatore. “We were familiar with the park because it’s right down the street; it actually takes less time driving wise to get from our home stadium here in Dunedin to Jack Russsell than it does to get to our minor league complex,” which is located in Dunedin, but about a mile further from the Blue Jays’ ballpark than Jack Russell Stadium.
While construction at Dunedin Stadium will make it unhabitable for home games, the Blue Jays will still be able to use some facilities during the regular season. As a result, the Blue Jays will have access to areas such as the home clubhouse and batting cages at Dunedin Stadium during the season, while making the short trip to Jack Russell to play games. One of the clubhouses at Jack Russell Stadium—normally dedicated to St. Petersburg College—will be used by visiting teams, with a smaller high school clubhouse available for situations such as rain delays.
“We want to maintain as much of a sense of normalcy for the guys this season as we can,” Liberatore said. “They can still use the clubhouse, they can still use our cafeteria/kitchen, our batting cages, side field, all that stuff. It’s just that we’ll have to drive five minutes roughly to play the actual game.”
To ensure that it is kept to professional standards, the Blue Jays’ grounds crew will maintain the playing surface at Jack Russell Stadium. With the main grandstand gone, Jack Russell Stadium’s current seating arrangement consists of bleachers behind home plate. That seating will be available for Blue Jays’ games, with fans also able to wander down the baselines to get an up-close look at the action. The team is planning to offer all general admission seating priced at $5, according to a press release issued in February.
Although the agreement was just recently finalized, the Blue Jays had anticipated for the past few years that a temporary home would be needed while Dunedin Stadium underwent renovations. The process involved both the Florida State League and Minor League Baseball, both of which were helpful to the Blue Jays as they scouted Jack Russell Stadium, according to Liberatore.
“Luckily, Ken Carson, who’s president of the Florida State League, is local and he’s very familiar with both our stadium and Jack Russell Stadium,” he said. “Same with the staff at Minor League Baseball. They were able to come up, do several site visits to Jack Russell Stadium and point out things we could do to bring it up to MiLB standards. From a player development side and from a league side, we didn’t want to be in a situation where we were playing all 70 of our home games on the road.”
There is also a precedence for this type of arrangement in the Florida State League, as the Lakeland Flying Tigers played their 2016 home schedule at Lakeland’s Henley Field while Joker Marchant Stadium underwent renovations. That provided some insight for Liberatore leading up to the Blue Jays’ temporary move out of Dunedin Stadium, as he was able to consult with the Flying Tigers and get a firsthand look at how they handle operations during their stay at Henley Field.
“I had some great conversations with their GM Zach Burek,” Liberatore said. “That was one of the first calls I made in the process, and even going back a couple years—knowing this was going to be on the horizon for us—I made sure that I went to a couple of games when they played at Henley Field, just to kind of walk around and get a feel for it myself knowing that a couple of years down the road I was probably going to be in the same boat.”
As noted, the Blue Jays will play 62 home games at Jack Russell Stadium this season. The exceptions will be a home series at Daytona’s Jackie Robinson Ballpark and a game at Bradenton’s LECOM Park—slated for late April/early May and June, respectively—and four games against the Threshers that will be played at Clearwater’s Spectrum Field, including one in April and three in August.
This article first appeared in the Ballpark Digest newsletter. Are you a subscriber? It’s free, and you’ll see features like this before they appear on the Web. Go here to subscribe to the Ballpark Digest newsletter.