Arizona dreamin' (cont.)
Posted: Thursday February 22, 2007 12:22PM; Updated: Thursday February 22, 2007 2:17PM
Though Arizona stakes claim to such natural wonders as the Grand Canyon and Petrified Forest, it can't match the number of major tourist destinations in Florida: Disney, Busch Gardens, the Keys and seemingly endless miles of sandy beaches. That explains why Arizona has been more aggressive in offering incentives to prospective ballclubs.
"I think Florida kind of got fat," Polite said. "They really didn't have anybody to compete with. They got caught napping, if you ask me."
That point is not refuted by Florida state senator Mike Fasano, the Republican majority whip.
"That's absolutely accurate," he said. "We took it for granted. We neglected our responsibility."
In response, Fasano is helping spearhead the Sunshine State's effort to keep the teams that remain. He was the senate's sponsor of a 2006 bill that allotted up to $75 million in matching funds to communities whose spring training facilities need renovation or replacement. The Mets (Port St. Lucie), Orioles (Fort Lauderdale), Pirates (Bradenton), Reds (Sarasota) and Devil Rays -- who plan to move from St. Petersburg to the Rangers' old home in Port Charlotte -- are in line to receive the aid with the caveat that the money goes to the cities and counties, rather than the teams, and is only to be used for infrastructure upgrades. That way the state's investment is protected should any of those major league clubs later choose to head west.
"It's extremely important to keep these teams here," said Fasano, who chairs the transportation and economic development committee. "One, it's a tradition and, two, it's an economic boost. It creates jobs and brings tourists."
Florida is not exactly suffering from the loss of a few teams -- at least not yet. A Grapefruit League-record 1.6 million fans went to games in 2006, and major attractions like the Red Sox and Yankees remain in Fort Myers and Tampa, respectively.
Of course, for some teams the move to Arizona isn't just about the Benjamins; it's also about the JosÚs, Marks, Jons and Javiers. More consistent weather and less rain equals fewer canceled workouts and more stability in the training regimens, especially for pitchers like Messrs. Contreras, Buerhle, Garland and Vazquez.
"If Jose Contreras is mapped out for an Opening Day start, [White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper] can work backward and schedule his workouts all spring," said Scott Reifert, White Sox vice president of communications. "I know how our pitching coach approaches it, and I know how happy he is."
For many teams, a move to Arizona has helped enhance the baseball product. While Florida sites are spread across the peninsula, most of the Cactus League teams train in the greater Phoenix area. That means shorter bus trips and more practice time. In the case of the Texas Rangers -- who play in the league's westernmost city and were in the Grapefruit League as recently as 2002 -- three of their so-called road games each spring are in their home stadium against the Royals and most of their trips are less than an hour.
"It's night and day," said Rangers director of travel Chris Lyngos. "Coming from Port Charlotte, you're tucked way in the middle of nowhere. Your closest trips are an hour to Sarasota and an hour and 10 minutes to Fort Myers."
So close are they to the Mariners and Padres in Peoria, for instance, that the Rangers will often take batting practice at their own facility before taking the short trip to the game. The farthest Texas ever travels is to Tucson where the Diamondbacks, Rockies and White Sox are based. And Lyngos said they can make that trip in under two and a half hours.
"I remember our first trip to Tucson," Lyngos said. "We got off the bus and some of the veterans asked me, 'Is that the farthest trip?' They were kind of jazzed. That would be a short trip in Florida."
More and more out-of-state fans are making the trek to the desert. Attendance in Surprise has gone up every year for the Rangers, and the Royals saw annual increases until a downturn a year ago. Club officials have found that families are slowly adjusting their spring travel habits to catch up with their teams.
Goodyear, Ariz., is hoping to take advantage of a pre-existing relationship with Ohio. The city -- founded by an executive of the Akron, Ohio-based tire company -- is also enjoying a period of robust growth like Surprise and has seen its population grow by more than 700 percent since 1990, bursting from 6,200 to 49,000.
Deputy city manager Brian Dalke said he began contacting major-league teams last March to gauge interest in moving to Goodyear. The proposed Ballpark Village -- with its $75 million baseball complex as the showcase of a larger commercial project -- was a deal too good for the Indians to pass up.
"All along, they had planned to stay in Florida," Dalke said. "But because of the type of development we're doing, it caught their attention. It evolved from a passive interest to a strong interest to a place that this is where they had to be."
For the Dodgers, who established their spring site in Florida when they still played in Brooklyn, packing a moving truck is simply a case of serving their supporters. As owner Frank McCourt told the Los Angeles Times last week, "This is not an economic decision. This is a fan convenience decision."
After the Dodgers and Indians pack up move to Arizona for Spring 2009, the westward migration may level off. The next Grapefruit League leases set to expire belong to the Astros, Blue Jays and Tigers -- but not until 2016. Of the then-16 remaining teams in Florida, only the Astros and Cardinals even make their permanent homes as far west as the central time zone. The eastern and northeastern teams, in particular, have great geographic incentive to stay more accessible to their fan bases in Florida.
"You would think that something really awful would have to happen between the city that hosts them and the team for them to move to Arizona," said Nick Gandy of the Florida Sports Foundation. "Geographically, it does nothing for them."
Then again, the Dodgers gave up more than 50 years of history in Dodgertown, and the Indians agreed to move just six months after first hearing from Goodyear officials. Those may not be the last teams to trade the sand of the beach for the sand of the desert.