Ah, Spring Training -- in which baseball re-enters the public consciousness amidst a backdrop of palm trees and ocean (or desert) sand. The return of our national pastime serves as a tangible reminder of the capacity for renewal and rebirth within us all.
But for the staff of the Fort Myers Miracle, Spring Training heralds something else entirely -- a return to the dungeon. Such an image, totally at odds with common perceptions of springtime activity, is simply one of the hazards of working in the Florida State League. With the exception of the Daytona Cubs, all of the teams in this Class A Advanced circuit host Major League Spring Training throughout the month of March. And when sharing one's facility with big league interlopers, certain accommodations need to be made.
In the case of the Miracle, this means vacating their usual third floor office digs at Hammond Stadium so that employees of the parent Minnesota Twins can move in. The team's staff then sets up shop in the aforementioned "dungeon," a makeshift office space located in a tunnel by the visiting clubhouse.
"We have 13 people in two offices down here, and we're all kind of sitting on top of each other," said Gary Sharp, the Miracle's director of media relations. "It's just one of those quirky things. Everyone knows when moving day is and everyone dreads it. We have to move into the dungeon, and then as soon as we do, we start counting down the days until we get out of there."
Sharp conveyed the above sentiments in an upbeat tone of voice, in a manner of one who is at peace with a situation and recognizes the humor in it.
"We have a great working relationship with the Twins," he said. "So everything works out well."
These relationships, between FSL clubs and their Major League Spring Training counterparts, vary throughout the league. Some teams are owned outright by the Major League franchise -- the Pirates own the Bradenton Marauders, for example -- while others (such as the Miracle) are bound by an affiliation agreement but operate under separate ownership. No matter what the specifics, Spring Training will always require copious coordination between the two entities.
"The Twins put the players on the field and sell the tickets, but the Miracle front office runs gameday operations from selling souvenirs to food and beverage to everything in between," said Sharp. "So during this time of year, you have to slice the day up. There's a lot of Twins stuff that needs to get done, so preparations for the regular season sometimes end up on the back burner."
Therefore, the offseason is especially short for Florida State League clubs ("about a week-and-a-half in September," by Sharp's estimation).
"We're planning for two seasons at the same time, and come Feb. 1, there's more of a focus on the MLB team than on your own," said Sharp. "So whereas with most clubs, the [sponsorship] selling season goes into mid-March, we need to be done in mid-February. ... We miss out on a month, but that can be a good thing, because it creates an urgency, not just for us, but for the advertisers as well. They want to have their billboard up for Spring Training, when there's a sellout every game."
Talk to anyone who works in Minor League Baseball, and you will inevitably be regaled with tales regarding the "grind" of having 70 openings within a five-month span. But the FSL is even more of a grind then, with Spring Training bringing the grand total to 87 openings.
Jim Pfander, the new general manager of the Charlotte Stone Crabs, immediately noticed the difference.
"This time of year is typically the doldrums. ... Right after the first of the year you concentrate on corporate sales and get those locked up, but after that it's like 'Now what?' The season can't get there fast enough," said Pfander, an industry veteran who previously worked with the Akron Aeros and Charleston RiverDogs. "But here, there's a momentum created by having a Major League team. I came in this morning and the Rays were having their headshots done. ... It's a cool thing. We've had fans in here every day since pitchers and catchers reported."
Pfander and his Stone Crabs cronies are fortunate in that they avoided a "dungeon"-type situation, as employees of the parent Rays work out of a separate building beyond right field at Charlotte Sports Park. And though some of his staff -- including those in food and beverage, ticketing and public relations -- are immersed in Spring Training duties, those within the sales department are focused on the upcoming Stone Crabs campaign.
"That's one of the advantages of having Spring Training. We can invite clients out to seal the deal, all while watching Major League players," he said.
Another way to capitalize on the Major League tenants is by emphasizing the symbiotic connection that exists between parent club and affiliate.
"[Tampa Bay Rays pitcher] Matt Moore had a lot of success as a Stone Crab, so a lot of our fans are gravitating toward him. It's only our fourth year in Port Charlotte, so having had a guy like that in our rotation is a real exciting thing."
Sharp made a similar observation.
"When our fans go to Spring Training, they can look at the talent on the field and say 'Oh, yeah. I saw that guy [with the Miracle] three years ago, or two years ago.' We promote that a lot, like 'There's Denard Span in center field with the Twins. You could have seen him with the Miracle four years ago.'"
One team that can't quite make the same connection is the Brevard County Manatees, who are in the anomalous position of hosting a team for Spring Training with which they are not affiliated. The Manatees are a Brewers farm club, but the Washington Nationals use the team's Space Coast Stadium in the spring.
"That's a perception that we have to fight in the community, that we're a Nationals affiliate," said Manatees general manager Kyle Smith. "The way we have to look at it is that the fans get two teams in one -- Spring Training with one organization and then getting to see the prospects of another."
Smith also touts the benefits of this arrangement to those seeking an internship with the Manatees.
"This is one thing that makes us unique, that at this time of year, you can put two professional teams on your resume," he said. "You'll get to meet people from the front offices of both, and that's a lot of contacts."
It's certainly important to find the positives just prior to the epic grind of the Spring Training-enhanced baseball season.
"It's funny -- there are some short-season teams right now who get to be sitting back a little at this time of year," said Sharp. "We tell them, 'Well, the first of 87 games for us is coming up on Saturday.'"