Things happen. The Braves have found a new home on Florida’s west coast in North Port, where commissioners on Tuesday approved a $100 million development deal for a new complex.
And so the Braves will turn off the porch light after they come here one last time in spring 2018 and become the last big-league team to have a spring fling in Central Florida. It’s been fun, hasn’t it kids?
Spring training is etched in our sports culture, from the Minnesota Twins training in Tinker Field, the Kansas City Royals in the Boardwalk and Baseball complex, and the Braves playing in the heart of Mouse Country.
We will move on after a quick obligatory rant about Arizona picking off teams from Florida for spring training gigs, as well as the crazy sticker-shock of new-fangled complexes so teams can charge big money to showcase a bunch of scrubs while stars sit in the dugout and chew gum.
But no regrets. The Braves were good to Central Florida and vice-versa. Let’s go back to the beginning, in 1997, when the Braves and Disney found each other in a fortuitous rebound relationship for both parties.
The Braves had just been spurred by local commissioners in West Palm Beach in a failed deal on a new complex. Disney officials had been ignored by Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos when they went up to Baltimore trying to pitch the idea of a fancy spring training site in the heart of Central Florida’s tourist hub.
Both deals blew up simultaneously, setting up the perfect scenario for two legendary brands.
“Negotiations were lightening quick,” recalls John Schuerholz, then general manager of the Braves. “There was no diddling around.”
“They were ordered to strike a deal over the weekend,” said Reggie Williams, then head of Disney’s Wide World of Sports.
It was quick, and complicated. Williams didn’t have much to show Schuerholz when he took him on a tour of the property. “When I met Reggie we were standing on an empty open field of sand dunes and weeds and little wooden stakes placed on the ground where home plate would be,” Schuerholz said.
But like a true Disney Imaginer, Williams sold him on the concept. It helped that the Braves really had nowhere else to go. “If not, we would have been Bingo Long’s Traveling All-Stars,” Schuerholz said. “That was a saving grace for us.”
And so the “cadre of lawyers” sat on opposite sides of the table and worked it out. Negotiations included some unusual bargaining chips, like who had the greater leverage in the cartoon empire – all of cool characters in the Mickey Mouse Club or the rival factions of the Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon – both with strong ties to Ted Turner’s cable TV group.
Turner owned the Braves and was loyal to all his brands, but he was able to work out a deal with Michael Eisner, then chairman and chief executive officer at Disney. No executive boardroom was necessary. They came to terms when Turner and his bride, Jane Fonda, showed up for the opening night of the inaugural Braves game, played March 28, 1997, between the Braves and the Cincinnati Reds.
“All of a sudden we had a great thaw in the antagonistic cartoon culture,” Williams said.
Williams and the Disney people were fine with that, because they were in the process of establishing a stand-alone sports brand at the complex. The Braves, a signature and dominant MLB franchise during those times, gave them instant credibility.
“You talk about legendary brands coming together and working together collaboratively, both partnering with the others to see that project though,” Schuerholz said. “And it has sat on top of the pillars of sports complexes even when some of those Taj Mahals were being built in Arizona.”
And so it ends next year.
Feel free to hoist a liquid beverage in their honor if you go to a game next spring. And if you notice Mickey Mouse in the house, don’t call security.
There’s been even more of a thaw in the antagonistic cartoon culture since 1997.