The last week of Spring Training is usually when teams play atypical exhibition games. This year, for example, besides Rays traveling south to Havana to take on the Cuban National Team, the Mets played the Cubs in Las Vegas, the Pirates played the Reds in Indianapolis, and the Red Sox played the Blue Jays in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium.
Starting in 2017, the Marlins and Rays should follow the footsteps of these teams and play post-spring training pre-season exhibitions at various empty ballparks throughout Florida.
Next season, both the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros are moving their Spring Training to West Palm Beach. This will leave both Osceola County Stadium and Space Coast Stadium barren of professional baseball during the spring. Both of these stadiums are in the highly coveted Central Florida market, a market both the Marlins and Rays would love to win, but is currently dominated by Yankees and Red Sox fans. Playing an all Florida exhibition in either Kissimmee or Viera would help promote the Florida teams to those areas.
Another option might be to play in Daytona’s Jackie Robinson Ballpark. While home to the Daytona Tortugas, Daytona is not home to a Spring Training team. The Rays and Marlins could easily make a trip to the northern reaches of their region for a local exhibition.
(And when asked, the Daytona Tortuga’s twitter account thought this was a good idea.)
An even better location for a Citrus Series exhibition may open up in 2018 if the Atlanta Braves move from their Disney World complex to somewhere else in Florida. This would leave Disney’s Wide World of Sports without baseball. It would also be as close to the Orlando market as the Rays and Marlins would ever play.
Currently, the Yankees control approximately 30% of the baseball fanbase in the Orlando area. Baseball fans in Orlando are however watching the Rays broadcasts in record numbers. How better to win their loyalty then to bring baseball to them before the season begins?
Of course, a Rays exhibition at Disney World is not without precedent. The Rays played six regular season games at Disney World – three in 2007 and three in 2008. These games were intended to expand the Rays fanbase to the Central Florida market.
In 2008, Rays then-President Matt Silverman stated “we provided fans in the Orlando area a first-hand look at the Rays. We are committed to extending the Rays deep into Central Florida and growing interest in our exciting, young team throughout the state.”
The Rays haven’t done much of that in the last eight years. As teams vacate their Spring Training locales, it might be time to give the Marlins a call and extend an exhibition into Central Florida again.
(This assumes the Rays stay in their Port Charlotte Spring Training location and not move to Disney World after the Braves leave as the folks at DRaysBay suggest. The odds of a move are low, as the Rays have a deal with Port Charlotte until 2029.)