FORT MYERS, Fla. — After two years of a pandemic and a lockout that cut the 2022 spring training season in half, the upcoming Grapefruit League season is most welcome throughout Southwest Florida.
"We had Hurricane Ian hit us and we, desperately, need some normalcy in our community," said Jeff Mielke, executive director of Lee County Sports Development. "Now that spring training is back to a full schedule and is allowing full (stadiums) again, that does bring a sense of normalcy back to our community. I think it's just critical right now for our destination."
Mielke led an hour-long discussion at the Twins Player Development facility in front of about 100 members of the Greater Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce. He said people spend about $70 million dollars in Lee County during a normal spring training. The COVID-19 pandemic cut the March 2020 spring training season in half, leading to three straight winters in the region where fans weren't able to reach the usual attendance and spending figures.
The Minnesota Twins open up their home schedule on Saturday at Hammond Stadium on Saturday, February 25, with a 1 p.m. first pitch against the Tampa Bay Rays. The Boston Red Sox follow on Sunday, February 26, also 1 p.m. against the Rays.
Their collective presence is a cornerstone of life in Southwest Florida. The Twins moved from Orlando to Lee County in time for the 1991 season and hold a year-round presence at their training facilities and offices, well beyond just Hammond Stadium.
"Our fans are everywhere and they come down to Southwest Florida," said Derek Falvey, Twins president of baseball operations. "They spend a lot of time in the winter and they love it down here. They're connected to the community."
The Boston Red Sox have called Lee County their "spring home" since 1993, first at City of Palms Park before their current spring training location at JetBlue Park on Daniels Parkway.
Chaim Bloom, chief baseball officer with the Boston Red Sox , talked about the organization's connection to the region from Hurricane Ian.
"I still lived in Florida for 15 years," said Bloom. "I know what it feels like and, even just talking to members of our organization, who were hunkering down at JetBlue Park to try and stay safe from the storm if they couldn't be in their homes. Just keeping in touch with them and seeing it through their eyes and, again, knowing what that feels like to be away from your home."
One challenge fans flying to Southwest Florida have had to face center on availability of hotel rooms. The damage from Hurricane Ian knocked plenty of hotels and properties offline that people have rented, going back decades -- especially along destinations like Fort Myers Beach, Bonita Beach and Sanibel.
"I think, right after the storm into even January that certainly was a concern," said Mielke on the concerns about lodging heading into the return of normal spring training. "We're hearing that the hotels are opening up that they're really hungry for the business that, typically, comes in here both leisure, tourism and sports tourism that we bring in."