The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For fans and businesses in Florida, the MLB lockout is a new spring training curveball

Roger Dean Stadium is the spring training home of the St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
6 min

JUPITER, Fla. — Around 11 a.m. Monday, Parker and Scott Cain walked along each gate at Roger Dean Stadium, searching for signs of life. They have done this every week since arriving in Florida from Buena Vista, Colo., for the winter Dec. 1. But now, even with collective bargaining talks moved to the ballpark for the foreseeable future — even with MLB officials and the players union arriving in two hours — very little had changed.

“What’s going on?” shouted Scott, Parker’s father, to a familiar worker at the park. Short answer: No one knows, and everyone has been instructed to say nothing.

“Any updates on the lockout?” asked Parker, who is 25 and on the game-day staff at Roger Dean. Short answer: Nope. Absolutely none.

“Anxiousness has turned into frustration,” said Parker, a longtime St. Louis Cardinals fan. “I didn’t know [the lockout] was going to last 81 days and counting.”

He sensed some judgment in a few beats of silence. He dropped his eyes and laughed.

“Yeah, of course I’ve kept count,” Parker admitted. “Spring training is my favorite time of year.”

In Jupiter, as in towns across Florida and Arizona, he’s not alone. MLB has postponed the start of spring training games until at least March 5. Full team workouts have not begun, either. Around Roger Dean this week, fans and business owners are bracing for a longer holding pattern. And it all comes after spring training was dashed by the coronavirus pandemic halfway through in 2020, then stunted by fear and attendance limits in 2021.

This spring was supposed to be a sharp break in the right direction. Jupiter, and more specifically the community surrounding Roger Dean, where the Cardinals and Miami Marlins train and have minor league teams, felt like that was earned.

“It’s really devastating,” said Dennis Witkowski, who has owned Stadium Grill, a popular spot right across from the ballpark, for 20 years. “It’s just a gut punch. We count on spring training every year. Our lives and business revolve around it. Florida remains a wonderful place to be in the winter. We still have that tourism, but you can’t replace the baseball fans.”

On Sunday, discussions in the Stadium Grill ranged from the Daytona 500 to a recent Elton John tribute concert in a part of the city called Downtown Abacoa, where the restaurant is central to a retail hub near Roger Dean. The whole place, including a bar, two dining areas and a big outdoor patio, had fewer than half a dozen customers. The televisions were turned to NFL Network and English soccer. And Monday, at the end of the holiday weekend, Witkowski scheduled just one waiter and two cooks for the lunch shift.

If Cardinals and Marlins workouts were in full swing, he would have had 13 waiters and seven cooks. So while baseball can be replaced in conversation and on TV, there’s no sub for his bottom line.

“It’s a huge impact financially for me because this is when we cash up for the leaner months,” said Vicki Parmelee, who has owned Jumby Bay Island Grill, a block down from the Stadium Grill, for 18 years. “But I feel even worse for the newer businesses that have come here and are really excited, like: ‘This is my first big spring training. We haven’t experienced that yet.’ And then they get this.”

David Schroeder and his business partner, Thomas Op’t Holt, fit in that category. They opened Brick & Barrel Gastro Pub, across the street from Jumby Bay, in June 2020. Since, they’ve opened two other spots in Downtown Abacoa: Duke’s Tacos & Margs and Tavern Pi. Schroeder says, “The stakes are much higher for us now.” Last March was Brick & Barrel’s best month yet, making Schroeder and Op’t Holt giddy for how this year would look.

Then the lockout started in December and they shifted expectations.

Svrluga: The Face of the Franchise, Mr. Walk-Off, Washington’s forever

“We had literally been talking about it for a year,” Op’t Holt said while sitting at the bar Tuesday. Their plan was to add staff and open for lunch, a few hours earlier than usual, once games began. They’ve been tasting their top-shelf whiskey and hoping for buyers. “Spring training being closed in March would be worse for us than another covid outbreak, like if they announced the zeta variant was coming. It would be that bad.”

“The merchants around here are pretty tight — we all talk a lot,” Schroeder added. “The number I’ve heard is that March accounts for roughly 25 percent of business for the whole year. I’m not sure it’s quite that high for us. But even if it’s 15 to 20 percent, that’s substantial for any restaurant or store to miss. … You can feel it here when it rains during spring training. If there is a rainout or something, it’s like, ‘Oh, man, we’ve got 12 guys working.’ So not having any games at all would be a disaster. It’s like a very, very long rainout.”

Lloyd Hyten, a die-hard Cardinals fan from Dexter, Mo., has been at 17 of the past 19 spring trainings in Jupiter. He and his wife, now retired, have spent two full months here for the past six, not missing any Cardinals exhibitions at Roger Dean. On Monday, on their daily walk around the stadium, Hyten tapped the only open ticket window. He cupped his hands around his eyes, trying to block the sun glare and see inside.

No one came, despite a lit-up “Open” sign. Hyten wanted to ask whether fans could watch the Cardinals’ minor leaguers work out. He promises he could get by if the lockout continues, whether by obsessing over prospects or spending more days at the beach. At a nearby gate, free copies of the Palm Beach Florida Weekly were stacked in a newspaper box. Flip toward the back, and the latest issue had 213 “Things To Do” through the end of March. None mentioned “baseball” or “spring training.”

Once Hyten left for the afternoon, a pair of kids, no older than 12, rode their bikes to the same ticket booth and parked. MLB officials were stirring directly above them, preparing for another round of bargaining that yielded incremental progress. This time, a woman sat behind the window. The boys asked if games would start March 6. She shrugged, offering no assurance or intel.

“Why aren’t they playing?” asked one of the boys as they got back on their bikes.

“Something with a lockout,” said the other, knocking up his kickstand to pedal away from the park.