Stadium funding issue could be derailed by Gaetz-Diaz amendment

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Lakeland officials are concerned over proposed legislation endangering funding for Florida baseball stadiums and its potential impact on the Detroit Tiger spring training facility.

Reps. Matt Gaetz and Jose Felix Diaz are pushing an amendment to the Professional Sports Facilities Incentive Application Process (HB 7095) that changes the application procedure for major league sports facilities wanting state money.

The two lawmakers want to withhold funds until Major League Baseball changes its policy regarding the treatment of Cuban ballplayers, calling to treat them the same as players from other countries.

Current MLB rules require ballplayers from Cuba to establish residency first in another country, prior to coming to America to play. Gaetz said this puts them at the mercy of con artists, criminals and human traffickers.

Los Angeles Dodgers star Yasiel Puig described how he left Cuba aided by a Mexican drug cartel, which demanded 20 percent of his major league earnings. The cartel then threatened Puig if he did not pay up.

According to Bill Rufty of the Lakeland Ledger, the Detroit Tigers and Lakeland plan to spend as much as $40 million in upgrades to the Tigertown spring training facility on North Lakeland Hills Boulevard.

Improvements will come through a combination of state, city and team funding.

Originally, the project was to use the state’s sports initiative fund, and the Lakeland project is much further along than other planned renovations throughout Florida.

However, Florida House Appropriations Committee chair Seth McKeel, who represents Lakeland, assures the city the amendment will not affect spring training, Rufty writes.

‘‘It affects a potential pot of money that could possibly be allocated if the Legislature passes the incentive bill (HB 7095) for new major league stadiums for the Tampa Bay Rays and the Florida Marlins, which want to build new stadiums,” McKeel added.

Gaetz said HB 7095 is for new funding based solely on capital improvements and stadium construction. It exempts existing spring training money, but future funds from the new source – for Lakeland or any other sports facility — could be withheld until MLB changes the rule on Cuban players.

“And there may come a day when any spring training facility funding, including the existing one,” Gaetz said, “will be contingent on Major League Baseball ending this archaic rule that threatens a player’s health and civil rights.”

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.