Fay tours Reds' old stomps in Sarasota

Posted at 6:00 AM, Mar 25, 2016

SARASOTA, Fla. -- I took a long walking tour of the new, energetic Ed Smith Stadium last week. I was half expecting to find a plaque somewhere thanking the Reds for making it possible to convert tired, old Ed Smith into what it is today.

The new Ed, spring home of the Baltimore Orioles, is a functional spring ballpark, right on par with the Goodyear Ballpark in Arizona. Not quite as nice, but close.

It’s not a palace like the Phillies’ place in Clearwater or the Cubs’ place in Mesa. But it’s fine. It has everything you need to get a team ready for the season. And it’s a major upgrade over the old Ed.

A wide view of Ed Smith Stadium during a Grapefruit League Spring Training Game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Boston Red Sox on March 25, 2009 in Sarasota, Florida.

“It’s like it’s not even the same place,” said former Red Paul Janish, now with the Orioles. “It’s really nice. It’s got everything you need.”

It’s been seven years since the Reds left Sarasota for Goodyear. And people are still asking why they left.

It’s a fair question.

Moving from Sarasota, which is practically crawling with transplants from Redsland and a very drivable destination, for the outskirts of Phoenix was probably the most un-fan-friendly thing the Reds did in the Bob Castellini era.

And I completely understand why they did it.

Sarasota kept promising the Reds things and then reneging. The final blow was losing the election in 2008 to fund a renovation. At that point, it became clear that the city and county weren’t going to foot a major portion of the bill for a total overhaul.

And the place desperately needed it. The stadium wasn’t up to standards with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The place was rundown — tired, as Marty Brennaman famously dubbed it — but the problems weren’t just cosmetic. If memory serves, half the restrooms weren’t working in the Reds’ final home game there.

The backfields were a hazard to players’ knees. The weight room was substandard by high school standards. The minor league locker room was a little scary.

And Goodyear was offering a brand new stadium and complex that had everything the Ed didn’t.

So the Reds made the move.

Organizationally, they’ve never looked back, The players and staff love Arizona. The proximity of the other facilities make the longest road trip in Arizona about the same distance as some of the shortest ones in Florida.

But getting to Arizona is such a hassle that few fans make it. The fact that Goodyear isn’t anywhere near the Gulf beaches doesn’t help either.

The renovated Ed Smith Stadium from the inside.

The Reds’ home opener at Goodyear Ballpark drew 2,382. The O’s open in Sarasota drew 5,989. The Orioles have had six home sellouts of the 7,500-seat Ed. The Reds’ biggest crowd has been 6,902.

I think the Reds would be drawing like that if they hadn’t left. And they would have stayed if the voters had approved the $16 million bond issue to redo the Ed.

The night the election was lost, then-COO John Allen said the Reds were leaving.

The harsh reality of having no spring team set in at Sarasota shortly thereafter. The Reds left after 2009. The Ed sat empty in 2010. The Orioles came in after a failed attempt to bring the Red Sox in.

The economic impact of spring training on Sarasota is estimated at $80 million. The $31 million price tag for the renovation proved to be worth it.

Sad for Reds fans, the Reds would likely have stayed if Sarasota had remade Ed Smith for them as they did for the Orioles.

Again, the Orioles have the Reds to thank for paving the way for those renovations by figuratively calling Sarasota’s bluff.

They ought to at least get a plaque for that.

John Fay is freelance sports columnist. This column represents his opinion.