Tiny and funky are not the usual descriptions for an MLB city

John Romano, Tampa Bay Times
·5 min read

DUNEDIN — It’s morning in the city and the usual crowd has gathered downtown. A Dalmatian is sniffing around here, and a Shih Tzu-looking thing is yapping over there. Nearby, a Labrador feigns sleep.

Good to know, on the day it turned big league, that Dunedin hasn’t lost its sense of cool.

The tiniest hometown Major League Baseball has ever known got off to a wonderfully funky start Thursday night when the Blue Jays and Los Angeles Angels played what was, in a border-bending manner, Toronto’s 2021 home opener.

“This doesn’t happen. You may never see Major League Baseball again in a stadium this size,” said Joshua Smith, 35, who was down from Buffalo with wife Tyler in their Blue Jays T-shirts. “It’s pretty cool, and we didn’t want to miss it.”

Because COVID-19 quarantine restrictions would make travel in and out of Canada problematic for baseball teams, the Blue Jays will spend at least the first two months of the season at their spring training home. While there have been smaller sites for one-off affairs, baseball’s Hall of Fame said 36,000-resident Dunedin is likely the smallest extended home in MLB history.

So does size matter?

Not around here where craft breweries and kitschy shops are signs of economic growth, and where the Blue Jays have been part of the spring backdrop for more than 40 years. This is a city without much industry or any pretense.

The houses explore every hue on the Sherwin Williams palette, and residents have taken to hanging multi-colored chandeliers in their front yards. TD Ballpark doubled as a high school field for Dunedin High and was considered a lesser-quality spring facility, but it was also as charming and cozy as any stadium in the Grapefruit League.

Just beyond the leftfield wall sits an elementary school that’s been neighborhood buddies with a baseball team for so long that the first group of kids to watch the Jays are now middle-aged homeowners.

“We joke that our kids learn the Canadian national anthem at the same time they learn our national anthem. They can hear it in the hallways whenever they step out of class,” said Wanda Coe, the data management technician at Curtis Fundamental Elementary School. “But it’s really cool to have the Blue Jays so close, we’ve had a great partnership over the years.”

Although the ballpark got a $102 million facelift a couple of years ago, little else has changed around the stadium. There’s a VFW Post directly across the street as well as pediatrician’s office, a laundromat and rows of houses.

There’s also the Home Plate restaurant, perhaps the only baseball-themed eatery owned by people who have never been to a baseball game. Ralph and Monica Kleinschrod, who spent their winters in Dunedin for the past decade, had recently sold their hotel/restaurant in Germany and were looking for something new when the Home Plate went on the market.

They revamped the restaurant’s backyard and turned a breakfast-only place into a lunchtime hangout for joggers and bikers cruising past on the Pinellas Trail. Their first spring training was slowed by the pandemic, but two months of regular-season games may turn out to be a nice substitute.

“The last two weeks we saw more Canadians here than we saw all spring,” Ralph Kleinschrod said. “They tell me, ‘Ralph, why come for spring training if we have the chance to go to the regular games?’ So last Sunday we saw lots of blue shirts, lots of Canadians in the beer garden and they told me now they are here for two months.”

Sitting in a booth underneath baseball bats attached to the wall, I ask the Kleinschrods how much they know about the Blue Jays.

“I know the Tampa (Bay) Rowdies and German soccer,” Ralph said, “but now I have to learn baseball.”

That’s not a problem in Dunedin where life seems to move at a more leisurely pace, befitting a city with waterfront views and weekend pub crawls. Quaint was the word used by Angels manager Joe Maddon, who spent nine years down the road with the Tampa Bay Rays.

“I do love the idea that we’re playing a Major League Baseball game in a neighborhood,” Maddon said. “It has a definite minor-league vibe to it. Not unlike St. Pete … driving into St. Pete had more of a minor league feel to it and I mean that with all due respect and as a compliment because I love the minor leagues.”

Down the street at the Dunedin History Museum, curator David Knupp explains that Dunedin has reinvented itself in the last 20 years. Once famous as the birthplace of orange juice concentrate in the 1940s, the town was stuck in the doldrums for decades before finding a second life with a vibrant art scene and weekend festivals.

So will Dunedin revert back to its small-town feel when the Blue Jays are scheduled to leave in June?

“Here’s my theory, and I’ve said it to (Blue Jays president) Mark (Shapiro),” said Dunedin city commissioner Maureen Freaney, who is the city’s liaison with the Blue Jays. “I said, ‘Hey, you guys keep winning here, you can’t just go back to Toronto.’”

“No, you don’t mess with a winning streak,” mayor Julie Ward Bujalski added. “It’s like you don’t change your underwear on a streak. Don’t do that. Don’t you leave.”

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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