By Ken Jackson
Professional baseball will return to Osceola County in 2017, but the games will begin in April instead of March.
Following a spring training love-fest this year connected to the Houston Astros final appearance that ended a 31-year run, minor league baseball will return after a 16-year hiatus.
County officials confirmed this week a three-year deal has been signed to bring a Class A Florida State League team to Osceola County Stadium starting in the 2017 season.
County officials declined to say what team would relocate, but the Brevard County Manatees, the Milwaukee Brewers’ FSL affiliate, would be a strong possibility. They currently play at Space Coast Stadium in Viera, but the Washington Nationals are joining the Astros for spring training at West Palm Beach next year, and the United States Specialty Sports Association is moving its national headquarters from Kissimmee to Viera, leaving the Manatees seeking a home.
Don Miers, Osceola County’s director of events and facilities, said the deal has been in the works for several months but had recently been vetted by the county and Experience Kissimmee, its tourism marketing arm. He said hosting a full-season baseball team benefits the community.
“It’s good for our locals for pro baseball to be here, and it’s something different and inexpensive for our tourists to do at night,” he said. “And it keeps our foot in the door for attracting another major-league franchise for spring training. The minor team’s major-league personnel will be coming through here to look at prospects, and other teams’ scouts and personnel will be here, too.”
County staff said the deal became a better fit after being shortened from 10 to three years and getting assurances that the complex will remain available for youth and amateur events.
“It’s a brilliant partnership,” County Manager Don Fisher said. “We have a shorter deal and the assurances there won’t be conflicts.”
Miers said the professional team will actually enhance the youth and amateur events.
“The kids and amateurs who play here on the back fields will be able to see how the pros do it,” he said. “And they’ll be here to work with the amateur events for trophy presentations and such. This will bring a year-round professional baseball presence that has been lacking since the (Kissimmee) Cobras left.”
Kissimmee hosted the Osceola Astros, later the Cobras, from 1985-2000, winning the FSL championship in 1999. Among the players who played here on their way to the major leagues were 1996 National League MVP Ken Caminiti, Tony Eusebio, Bobby Abreu, Kenny Lofton, Roy Oswalt, Morgan Ensberg, Brad Lidge, Tim Redding, Julio Lugo and Lance Berkman. Former Washington and Cleveland manager Manny Acta was a player and a coach for Osceola and coached the Cobras to their FSL championship. He is the third-base coach for Seattle.